Gloom Over Zimbabwe

What the foreign papers are saying.
April 21 2000 3:00 AM

Gloom Over Zimbabwe

The deepening crisis in Zimbabwe dominated the British press again Thursday, while, elsewhere in Europe, the Italian papers all led with the resignation of Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema after his humiliation in regional elections (as did the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung of Germany). Die Welt of Germany led with Austrian Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider floating the idea of Austria quitting the European Union, and Le Figaro of Paris and El País of Madrid led with the death in a bomb blast of a young woman employee at a McDonald's restaurant in Brittany—a suspected act of terrorism by Breton separatists. But Zimbabwe remained the most alarming story.

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London's Times and Daily Telegraph both led with the gang rape Wednesday of two young white women on a farm just outside Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. The Times said hundreds of white women and children have started to flee farms "after a brutal cycle of rapes and attacks brought the spectre of Balkans-style ethnic cleansing to southern Africa." The liberal Guardian, however, devoted its front-page report to the sufferings of black opponents of the government of President Robert Mugabe. It noted that at least five of them had been murdered in the past two weeks, compared to two white farmers. The Daily Telegraph also reported that "beatings, intimidation, blood-curdling threats and even murder have been the daily experience of the black workers on hundreds of occupied [white-owned] farms."

This new emphasis in the British press on the sufferings of Zimbabwean blacks is linked to its efforts to undermine Mugabe's attempts to depict the crisis as a black-white conflict. Practically all British newspapers, of whatever political persuasion, take the view that Mugabe has been trying to stir up anti-white racism in order to keep himself in power. Liberal papers, which feel strongly that Zimbabwean farmland is unjustly distributed to the benefit of the whites, currently regard this as a red herring. Even in the conservative press, there is a striking lack of the "kith and kin" emotionalism that characterized its attitude to Zimbabwe's white minority at the time of independence 20 years ago. The whites, generally seen then as blood brothers of the British, are now portrayed as no less African than their black compatriots.

A sense of hopelessness pervades editorial comment. There is general agreement that Britain should take no unilateral action against its former colony, since it is feared that this would only play into Mugabe's hands. Most papers urge intervention by the Commonwealth, and especially by South Africa, but without much hope that this will happen or, if it does, that it will be effective. The best-case scenario is that Mugabe will go ahead with an election next month and be beaten by blacks and whites voting together, but there is little faith in this outcome either.

In an interview Wednesday with the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed that the breakdown of negotiations between Israel and Syria may have been due to fears by Syrian President Hafez Assad that a peace agreement would threaten his hold on power. "For years I've been saying that in Syria they may be suffering from the Ceausescu syndrome," Barak said. "[former Romanian President Nicolae] Ceausescu opened the window to get a little breeze from western Europe, and all of a sudden a typhoon came along that threw him out of the other window. For Assad it was also a personal experience, because he and Ceausescu were friends." On Thursday, however, Syria's ruling party daily al-Baath accused the United States and Israel of orchestrating a propaganda campaign to intimidate Syria into submitting to Israel's terms. The paper's editor in chief, Turki Saqr, wrote that this campaign clearly dates from President Clinton's failed summit with President Assad in Geneva last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's visit to London on Monday was generally hailed as a success in the Russian press, though Vedomosity noted Tuesday that he was greeted without any euphoria. The prevailing view was that he succeeded in forging closer ties with the West, despite its distaste for his conduct toward Chechnya. "[British Prime Minister Tony] Blair showed that the West is still talking to and respecting Russia, and Putin won a softening on Moscow's problem in Chechnya," it reported. The liberal Moscow daily Segodnya said Moscow and London have now developed an "exclusive" relationship in which Britain will serve as an intermediary between Russia and the United States on sensitive issues. "The Kremlin does not hide the fact that Moscow regards special ties with London as a step toward Washington, hoping to play the [British] card to its utmost," the paper said.

The South China Morning Post of Hong Kong reported on its front page Thursday that Pfizer, the manufacturers of Viagra, may have run afoul of the law by launching a poster advertising campaign for its most famous product. Hong Kong's Undesirable Medical Advertisements Ordinance prohibits "the promotion of sexual virility, desire or fertility, or the restoration of lost youth," the paper said. 

Alexander Chancellor is a columnist for the Guardian.

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