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After '98 (whew), a peek at '99

From Mexico City to Beijing, Monitor reporters look at events and forces likely to shape the next year.

Will 1999, a countdown year to the next millennium, be able to top 1998 for momentous events?

It will be hard to beat 1998 for the drama of the Clinton impeachment, the worldwide experience of bizarre weather such as hurricane Mitch, or the historic milestone of two more nations (India and Pakistan) obtaining nuclear weapons.

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Rather, the final days of the 20th century may look, oddly enough, like its early decades: war in the Balkans and Africa, turmoil in Russia, China's leaders worried about uprisings, Europe struggling to redefine itself, Far East nations coping with poverty, and the world economy on a roller coaster.

To be sure, this century has reached a peak of peace, prosperity, and democracy. But many events in 1999 may be related to the continuing cleanup of this century's longest war (the cold one), which created new forms of terrorism and tyranny, and left many nations destitute.

Monitor reporters raised their periscopes to look at likely events in 1999. Here are their reports:


Russia lurches into 1999 expecting more of the economic and political turbulence that marked this past year.

No signs exist that Russia will be able to easily climb out of its economic collapse, which began on Aug. 17 with the sudden devaluation of the ruble, collapse of the banking system, and Moscow's default on some debts. Russians have entered this winter hungry, poorer, and dependent on foreign food aid.

The big question is whether the West will bail out Russia or abandon it to economic, and therefore political, meltdown.

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The coming year spells D-day for debts: some $18 billion of state debt and $15 billion in commercial debts will fall due.

Can Russia pay? Most experts think not.

Will the West bail it out, considering the past history of corruption and mismanagement? So far there are no signs it will. Debt forgiveness looks like an elusive dream.

Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has so far failed to design an economic plan that will convince Western lenders that it is safe again to engage Russia. His draft budget has too little tax collection and too much spending to satisfy the International Monetary Fund.

Anxiety reigns on the political front, too. This will be a decisive year in determining the shape to come of Russia, which has been ruled by one man - President Boris Yeltsin - since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

Mr. Yeltsin spent most of the past year being treated for health problems and his authority has eroded drastically. "Will he last another year?" many Russians ask.

Mr. Primakov, acting as de facto vice president, is trying to maintain stability while politicians across the spectrum jockey for 1999 parliamentary elections and the 2000 presidential vote.

Will the next leader be a Communist? An authoritarian nationalist? Does this mean the end of liberal free marketeers whose efforts failed so miserably? Will Russia grow more distant from the West?

If Yeltsin dies in office, Russia will be thrown into a confusing and costly early election for which the country is not yet prepared. But if he remains in power, more policy stagnation in his lame-duck reign is bound to prevail.

- Judith Matloff


The people of East and Southeast Asia hope 1999 will put a stop to their downward slide.

1998 brought severe recession to Southeast Asia and saw Japan experience its worst downturn since the end of World War II. Political upheaval gripped many capitals. A hungry people and an inscrutable leadership continued to define North Korea.

No one will know until it happens, but 1999 could be a turnaround year. Most economists believe that Japan's economy will continue to shrink, but not as much as it did this year. Some other key economies in the region - notably South Korea and Thailand - seem ready to begin to put the Asian crisis behind them, thanks to steps toward economic reform.

Elections for a new assembly and the selection of a new president will occur next year in Indonesia - where more than a thousand people died in 1998's political turmoil - bringing the possibility of a more effective democracy to the world's fourth most populous nation.

North Korea remains the region's wild card. The US-British attack on Iraq in December caused some people in Asia to wonder why North Koreans aren't treated with similar hardball tactics - even though they are also developing weapons of mass destruction. In August, North Korea fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan, prompting Tokyo to begin developing its own spy satellites.

And the United States wants to know more about a North Korean underground construction site, which analysts worry could be a nuclear facility. All the while, North Korea continues to use these apparently aggressive activities as leverage to win aid and assistance from Japan, South Korea, the US, and even Europe.

For guaranteed good news, Asians and Japanese in particular can look to the skies next year: A Japanese spacecraft will begin its exploration of Mars - joining a club heretofore exclusive to Russians and Americans.

- Cameron W. Barr


On Jan. 1, 11 European countries give up their own money and turn it in for "euros," a new single currency designed to unite the Continent even more firmly. Consumers won't actually be using euro bills and coins until 2002, but every transaction that isn't in cash will be done in the new money.

Money is also at the heart of a critical round of dealmaking in the corridors of the European Union that will be going on over the next three months, as the European Union hammers out its budget for the next six years. At stake is not just who pays what - and each of the 15 members wants to pay less - but whether any of the Eastern European countries who want to join will be allowed in anytime soon.

Three of them - Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland - will be joining NATO in April, when the Western alliance celebrates its 50th birthday. A special summit in Washington is due to declare just what NATO is for, when it includes some of its old enemies.

Another pan-European date in the calendar falls next June, when voters from the Arctic Circle to the toe of Italy choose members of the European parliament. The elections reflect national, not continental, politics and the parliament is still pretty toothless. But there is much talk of a "democratic deficit" in Europe, where many people feel that bureaucrats at the EU's Brussels headquarters answer to nobody, and the European parliament is eager to expand its powers.

Power shifts eastward in Germany next September, when the country's government moves from Bonn to the new capital, Berlin. This is the final step in re-unification, restoring the pre-World War II situation. And though Europeans don't like to say so openly, the move awakens disturbing memories of how Germany used its prewar power.

Elsewhere in Europe, violence is more than a memory: 1999 will be a testing year for the fragile truce in Kosovo, where full-scale war is still very much in the cards, and for the peace agreement in Northern Ireland, where the Irish Republican Army is refusing to hand in its weapons. But in Spain's Basque country, where separatists declared a truce this year, 1999 will offer the opportunity to explore the prospects for a lasting peace.

- Peter Ford


Few in the Middle East can predict major events likely to shake the region in 1999. But some themes will be familiar, and there will be benchmark events.

In the Palestinian-Israeli "peace process," the interim Wye accord is frozen, as Israel prepares for an election that may well determine the future of peace with the Palestinians - and eventually Syria and Lebanon. And to complicate the equation, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat may declare a Palestinian state on May 4, when the Oslo peace deal runs out.

But that dilemma is one of many dramas playing themselves out across the Mideast. Turkey is wrestling with questions of home-grown Islamic power, and the Army's secular alliance with Israel that has helped turn Turkey away from Europe and toward its eastern neighbors.

Tension is high on the divided island of Cyprus, too, as Greek Cypriots declare that they will deploy Russian surface-to-air missiles - upsetting a fragile balance of power that has prevailed for 25 years.

Iran has been host to a remarkable battle between reform and conservative clerics, who are fighting at once to keep their nation's spiritual purity and to join the 21st century. Two decades after Iran's Islamic Revolution - the anniversary comes up in early February - the debate still rages, and could result in violence.

As much a part of the region now is American influence, exercised through its military and political presence, and a pervasive cultural presence that is undeniable. More than 20,000 US troops constantly rotate through the Persian Gulf - to protect oil-rich allies, whose economies are struggling as oil prices drop below $10 per barrel, and to "contain" Iraq.

Those US troops attract the ire of anti-American Muslims bent on attacking US interests, such as Osama bin Laden - the Saudi exile who Washington believes is behind the twin embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania last August. Though denying responsibility for those attacks, Mr. bin Laden has threatened US interests if troops stay in the Gulf.

Iraq's conflict with the United Nations and the US could go many directions, especially if UN weapons inspectors do not return. More and frequent US and British air raids are said to be in the cards when Iraq misbehaves. What is the endgame? Will the Iraqi leader, in the end, be removed from the scene?

- Scott Peterson


The world's most populous nation is likely to face one of the planet's biggest unemployment problems in 1999 as China moves to reform its dominant but unprofitable state sector.

Two-thirds of China's government-run businesses are running in the red, and as many as 30 million urban workers are out of work. They compete with more than 100 million peasants who have flocked to the cities to escape rural poverty. China lacks many features of the welfare safety nets common in the capitalist West, including a national unemployment benefits system.

"Major Chinese cities have begun experimenting with local welfare benefits for the jobless, but it's hard to say when a national program will be created," says Dong Furen, a legislator involved in economic policymaking in the National People's Congress, China's parliament.

The Communist Party is taking harsh steps to ensure that no new party attempts to gain the allegiance of the disgruntled unemployed. In recent weeks, dozens of members of the fledgling China Democracy Party have been jailed. "With massive and growing unemployment, the Communist Party is worried that pro-democracy dissidents will attempt to organize the jobless in nationwide protests," says Frank Lu, who heads a Hong Kong-based human rights group.

Mr. Lu says the ongoing crackdown on the Democracy Party is likely to intensify as China counts down toward the 10th anniversary of the Army's June 4, 1989, suppression of demonstrations at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

The leaders of the People's Republic of China, which turns 50 next Oct. 1, "will probably step up the use of police, prisons, and labor camps to silence dissidents," says Lu.

- Kevin Platt


Warlords, buccaneers, pseudodemocrats, and mercenaries will keep Africa's 1998 battles going well into 1999, particularly in mineral-rich countries such as Congo, Angola, and Sierra Leone. The slaughter is likely to continue in seemingly intractable civil wars in Algeria and Sudan.

There are some bright spots, however. Africa's most populous nation, Nigeria, goes to the polls in February in what the country's new military leadership promises will be free and fair elections. Later in the year Africa's poorest nation, Mozambique, will hold its second democratic elections since a devastating civil war ended there in the early 1990s.

However, it is the ongoing Congo conflict that will determine much of Africa's future this year. Involving at least nine African nations, that conflict could spread across the sub-Saharan region.

Zimbabwean, Angolan, and Namibian troops are fighting on the side of Congo President Laurent Kabila, who also gets support from Chad and Libya. The Congolese rebels are backed by Uganda and Rwanda, in the war to clear the eastern Congo of their own ethnic and regional enemies, some of whom are backed by Sudan.

Peace may be in the offing in Congo, as President Kabila's most powerful backers - Angola and Zimbabwe - have urgent reasons to drop him in order to concentrate on home affairs. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe faces tremendous civil unrest at home for economic mismanagement and his expensive Congo involvement. Meanwhile, Angola must focus on its own intensifying internal war.

An era ends in South Africa in 1999 when Nelson Mandela, a name synonymous with peace and reconciliation, steps down as president. South Africa will hold its second multiracial elections in May. The politics of intimidation, which nearly derailed the first elections in 1994, is making a comeback as township factions and rural warlords arm themselves.

- Kate Dunn


Watch for three themes in Latin America - economy, sovereignty, and democracy - and one early international event: President Clinton's February trip to Central America to review recovery from hurricane Mitch and the US role in it.

The world was spared the predicted collapse of Brazil, Latin America's largest economy, in 1998. But that doesn't mean Brazil - or the rest of the region - is out of the economic woods. Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso will have his work cut out for him in achieving congressional approval of a long list of measures to put Brazil's economy back in order - or the world may fret over a Brazilian collapse again in the final months of 1999. In the meantime Brazil's recession will affect neighboring economies.

Elsewhere, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo - whose term ends in 2000 - will be working to break the string of "recurring economic crises" that traditionally hit Mexico at the end of a president's term.

Sovereignty will be a key theme from the region's very north to its southern tip. Mexico faces the possibility of failing the United States certification of drug-producing countries. Speculation has been building that US disappointment over Mexico's antidrug-trade accomplishments could lead to it being "decertified" in March. That challenges the conventional wisdom that the US may huff and puff but, for pragmatic political and economic reasons, will never take such a drastic step against a NAFTA partner. Beyond Mexico, the continuing detention in London of Chilean former military dictator Augusto Pinochet will keep Latin countries reflecting on the limits of sovereignty in a new globalized world.

In a region where democracy is still widely a work in progress, eyes will be on how countries succeed at overcoming authoritarian pasts while opening their systems to broader participation. Can Venezuela's President-elect Hugo Chávez, leader of a 1992 unsuccessful coup, succeed in forging the "third way" he refers to between the market economy and socialism, without resorting to his strongman past? Will Chile elect a Socialist president for the first time since Salvador Allende was ousted in Pinochet's 1973 coup? And can Mexico adjust to a more open and competitive presidential campaign without the violence that shook the country in the 1994 race?

- Howard LaFranchi

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