International Papers

That Was the Year That Was

In the old days, the international news menu consisted of such hearty fare as nuclear showdowns, mass genocide, and armed revolutions. By comparison, today’s news seems to go down like canapés and Chablis: an ill-maintained nuclear submarine sunk here, a couple of despotic regimes spinning out of control over there. This column will wait for the Fleet Street hacks to identify a unifying theme for 2000 but in the meantime can’t resist compacting the last 12 months of news in six of the countries that dominated “International Papers” in the year 2000.

The Israeli government’s turmoil began in June, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s fragile ruling coalition splintered. Although repeated threats to dissolve the Knesset and call a general election came to naught—much to Benjamin Netanyahu’s chagrin—Barak resigned, triggering a vote for the prime ministership only. The Al-Aqsa intifada  has left more than 350 dead and thousands wounded, most of the casualties Palestinian. With Barak facing Likud Party hawk Ariel Sharon in the premiership election scheduled for Feb. 6, and deal-facilitator President Bill Clinton with only three more weeks left in his term, the world’s press agreed that, in the words of Britain’s Independent, “this really is the last chance for peace in the Holy Land for a long, long, time.” Clinton’s latest “bridging proposal” would transfer the Haram al-Sharif Muslim shrines on what Jews call Temple Mount in Jerusalem to Palestinian sovereignty, and in exchange would require the Palestinians to compromise on their claim that refugees who left their homes in Israel—and their descendants—have a right to return. Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald   declared, “[O]nly incurable optimists would rate the prospects of ultimate success highly.” The liberal Israeli paper Ha’aretzencouraged the prime minister to make a bold response to Clinton: “Barak should tell Clinton Israel accepts his proposal. If Arafat decides to reject it, he alone will bear responsibility for the outcome.” The Jerusalem Post, by contrast, said:

[W]hat we see is a desperate effort to take the maximalist offer made at Camp David and sweeten it further, to the point that it becomes an offer the Palestinians cannot refuse. … [A] peace agreement that does not project strength on Israel’s part becomes more dangerous, not less, in the face of a growing non-conventional threat.

In 2000 it was all change in Russia—if only on the surface. On New Year’s Eve 1999, Boris Yeltsin surprised the country by resigning the presidency and anointing Vladimir Putin as his successor—a choice confirmed by the voters in March. Putin’s approval ratings have apparently remained high (a poll taken this week showed 68 percent of Russians rate his presidential performance favorably), despite the continuation of the war in Chechnya, where, the Moscow Times reported, “an average of 200 servicemen lost their lives from October 1999 to October 2000”; Putin’s indifference to the plight of the seamen lost when the submarine Kursk sank in August; and his taste in Soviet-era anthems. The Moscow Times’ year-end roundup concluded:

[W]hile some of the actors may have changed roles and the orchestra has struck up a Stalin-era tune, the tragicomic plot remains essentially the same. Little has been done to stamp out corruption or strengthen the legal system. Regional bosses continue to have almost unchecked power—despite a much-ballyhooed Kremlin campaign to rein them in. The conflict in Chechnya rages on, with the death toll inching up daily.

Peru staged a political soap opera that mixed Wagner and the Marx Brothers. In May, “irregularities” in the nation’s elections attracted critical attention to President Alberto Fujimori’s regime. In September, the president’s right-hand man, spymaster Vladimiro Montesinos, was caught on videotape apparently bribing an opposition politician and later fled the country. Three months later, Fujimori fled to Japan, where he was revealed to hold citizenship. Although it hardly seems possible, things have now descended even further into farce. With Montesinos still on the lam, the Peruvian Interior Ministry has expanded the search to the Internet with a Web “Wanted” poster for the English version, though one wonders for whose benefit this admittedly poor translation was made) showing Montesinos in a rather unconvincing false. Meanwhile, Fujimori is currently penning a confessional four-part series for Japan’s Daily Yomiuri. In Thursday’s piece, he describes Montesinos as a “cancer” and admits, “I am politically responsible for having allowed this cancer to grow.”

The Philippines took perverse pride in authorship of the “love bug” computer virus in May. By August the kidnapping of Western hostages by the Islamic group Abu Sayyaf drew attention, and by November President Joseph Estrada’s impeachment trial was in the news. Thursday’s Manila Timesreported that prosecutors are considering dropping two of the four charges against Estrada “to speed up the impeachment trial that has battered the economy and put the nation on hold”—conviction on one count would be sufficient to force his removal from office. An editorial in the Philippine Inquirer described the testimony of a prosecution witness who claimed to have witnessed Estrada signing a false name on a bank transaction as “devastating.”

In Indonesia, the year ended as it began. In January, the Indonesian government blamed the military and cronies of former President Suharto for inciting religious and ethnic violence. This Christmas Eve, a series of 15 bombs detonated in Christian churches spread around nine cities and towns killed 15 people and injured up to 100, and once again suspicion fell on “disaffected” military elements. Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post reported that the remarkable precision and careful coordination of the attacks revealed sophisticated planning and execution, and speculated, “Their goal is presumed to be the creation of fear and chaos to reduce public enthusiasm for a democratic society and heighten support for a return to military-run law and order.” The paper noted the warm relationship between Indonesia’s armed forces and Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Zimbabwe continued its staggering collapse. In March the seizures of white-owned land by veterans of the 1970s’ war against white rule threatened the nation’s economy, and the June election was marred by reports of violent intimidation and fraud. South Africa’s Mail & Guardian listed street-clogging, four-lane gas queues brought about by severe fuel shortages, and banks that ran out of money among Zimbabweans’ woes. The country’s independent papers seem dispirited: The Financial Gazette lost patience with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change it supported so enthusiastically in the election campaign and urged it to “shape up or go,” while an editorial in the Zimbabwe Independent told readers: “We should prepare for the New Year with hope tinged by realism. It is not going to get better yet. But we must craft the nation we want. That task begins now.”

Testing times: Readers who fancy themselves well-versed in international affairs can test their knowledge with year-end quizzes provided by the Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian of Britain. And for a sharp look at the year in pictures, try Spain’s El Mundo.