Comment: Building A New Vision In The Balkans

The end of the war should mark the beginning of a decisive new policy for building democracy, development and real peace throughout the region.

Comment: Building A New Vision In The Balkans

The end of the war should mark the beginning of a decisive new policy for building democracy, development and real peace throughout the region.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

There were wild celebrations in Belgrade last week. But as one old friend and fellow journalist writes, "No one mentions the dead, the wounded, the disappeared. The country is destroyed. And for what? The sun is the same, the sky is still blue, but the mood is grey."

The people of Serbia are certainly glad to see the bombing end, but with their homeland in tatters and the leader who has taken them through four disastrous wars still in power, there is little for them to look forward to.

It is now up to the West--the victors of this latest war--to make a break with a decade of Balkan conflicts and bring lasting peace not just to Serbia but to the entire region. That means more than just an end to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. It means putting a stop to the degrading nationalist politics, the crony administrations and the mind-numbing media propaganda.

It means seeing the Kosovo accord not just as one more patched-up accommodation, but as a true turning point for the Balkans. Now is the time for a bold new vision for the entire region, so that economic growth and political integration help ensure that Balkan wars become a thing of the past.

Having seen so many peace accords broken, few in the region--especially the Kosovo Albanians--place much faith in any paper signed by Belgrade. However justifiable, the latest war has led them through a practical and psychological cataclysm. Given the international attention the Balkans have received in recent months, and especially the talk of stability pacts and other reconstruction programs, the people of the region now look to the West to help them get back on their feet.

The West meanwhile may be tempted to focus on Kosovo and the Albanian refugees and move on. Post-war reconstruction in itself is a daunting task. The international priority, to help Kosovo Albanians return to their homes as soon as possible and ensure that they have shelter before the onset of winter, is a crucial first step.

Once Yugoslav forces have fully withdrawn from Kosovo--as they are expected to within the next week--one of the principal obstacles to returning refugees will have disappeared. With a strong mandate and some 50,000 peacekeepers, a UN administration should then be able to oversee their repatriation. As a Kosovo Albanian journalist noted, "One friend of mine says he will not go back to Kosovo unless he is received at the border by an American soldier and an Albanian policeman."

That may well happen. But while Kosovo Albanians can look forward to international support in the coming years, prospects for the province's Serb minority are bleak. Fearing reprisals, many have already decided to leave Kosovo together with the Yugoslav army for Serbia proper. There they will swell the ranks of other Serb refugees, joining their ethnic kin from Croatia and Bosnia--forgotten victims of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's earlier wars.

With this disillusioned population and half a dozen indicted war criminals at the helm, Serbia looks like fertile ground for future unrest. Weakened by two and a half months of bombing, Belgrade is not in a position to export conflict beyond Yugoslavia's borders. But Milosevic's way of resolving one conflict has all too often been to create another, and he still has a Pandora's box of potential conflicts to exploit within Yugoslavia--with the internal Serbian opposition, among the non-Serb minorities in the Sandzak and Vojvodina regions, as well as in Montenegro.

In the short term, the Serbian opposition appears most vulnerable. Labelled fifth columnists by regime media during NATO's bombing campaign, democracy and human rights activists fear "the day after." They worry that they will bear the brunt of any domestic backlash as Milosevic attempts to reassert his authority on the home front.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting's network of independent journalists throughout the region continued contributing right through the war, but from the first day of the bombing authors within Yugoslavia--including those quoted in this article--asked us to withhold their identities: The risks were too great. As one contributor reported to us, "As long as the NATO airstrikes continue, we're fine. But God help us when they stop." Another colleague put it more bluntly: "Kosovo is now free, but we are still in prison."

According to one of our contributors in Sandzak--a region straddling Serbia and Montenegro and bordering both Kosovo and Bosnia--more than 20,000 of the Slavic Muslims who form the majority in the region have fled their homes and taken refuge with their ethnic or religious kin in Bosnia since NATO launched its bombing campaign. Those who remain are nervous.

In Vojvodina, Serbia's northern province, the situation is less tense. But the 350,000-strong Hungarian minority worries that, now that Hungary is a member of NATO, they may be victims of anti-NATO sentiment. Community leaders have publicly criticised the bombing campaign. But this may not be enough to assuage Milosevic's vindictiveness.

In Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, the Yugoslav army has been trying to undermine the pro-Western government of Milo Djukanovic. As a result, some Montenegrins compare the situation in their republic to that in Slovenia, just before it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Zeljko Ivanovic, a newspaper editor in the capital, Podgorica, wrote a few weeks ago that, "Montenegro feels on the eve of war--army checkpoints and machine-gun nests punctuate the countryside, the borders are closed, and armed men break into flats to press gang men of military age, leading them away in handcuffs."

The challenges for regional peace are even wider than Yugoslavia's shrinking borders, though. Macedonia and Albania, the countries that have borne the brunt of the refugee crisis and served as staging posts for NATO troops, are economically strapped. Both countries anticipate substantial economic support, and hope for some sign from the European Union (EU) and NATO that their aspirations for membership may have been helped by their cooperation.

Often forgotten in the international focus on Kosovo is the plight of the other Balkan countries, Bulgaria and Romania, which have lost substantial trade that normally moves through Yugoslavia--due to the destruction of the bridges over the Danube River and the closure of other transit routes. In Bosnia, where the three-and-a-half-year-old peace remains fragile despite the presence of 31,000 NATO-led troops, political and ethnic tensions have risen in recent weeks, as Serbs and Slavic Muslims there inevitably took different views on the bombing campaign.

The new vision must be regional, then. And its centrepiece must be justice. For too long, the West has vacillated--one minute opposing nationalist leaders, the next looking to them to deliver peace settlements. This chaotic approach has been exploited by local power brokers and engendered deep cynicism among ordinary people throughout the region. "For too long the West complied with the ethnic programmes in the region, and the lesson was that the nationalists got away with it," explained Sonja Biserko, a human rights campaigner who recently left Belgrade. "So opportunism prevailed, which meant following the nationalists. People just laughed at anyone who raised moral issues."

In practical terms, this means providing full and unconditional support for the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The indictment of Milosevic and other Serbian leaders must be followed up, through further investigations and, if necessary, additional charges, both for crimes committed in Kosovo and earlier in Bosnia.

Western governments must turn over all relevant evidence to the tribunal, even where, as in Bosnia, it may risk destabilising existing agreements. The strongest signal the West could send in this new policy would be the immediate arrest of indicted Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, as well as all other indicted war criminals, who have not yet been brought to justice, including Milosevic himself if the opportunity should arise. Now that the Yugoslav leader is indicted he can no longer be accommodated as a serious negotiating partner as he was in the past.

The second goal must be to give new impetus to refugee return both in Bosnia, where many still languish in temporary accommodation, and in Croatia, where lack of money, disenfranchisement and a nationalist administration in Zagreb have impeded the return of hundreds of thousands of Serbs.

Third, the West must rethink the problem of ethnic nationalism and find mechanisms to resolve the tension between sovereignty and minority rights. That means revisiting those agreements, especially in Bosnia, which guarantee the position of nationalist parties, and pursuing new approaches to encourage democratic participation, from voting systems to civil society aid.

Similarly, economic aid must be substantial, comprehensive and fast. There have been some economic improvements--in Bulgaria and even in Macedonia--as a result of firm economic policies and international financial support. Yet, despite talk--which began as long ago as 1994--of a Balkan stability pact that would regenerate the entire region under EU auspices, no such plan materialised.

To make good on the West's declaration that the war was not directed against the Serbian people, just their leadership, Serbia should not be excluded from aid packages, despite protestations from both President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the country will receive no aid while Milosevic remains in power. Humanitarian assistance should be immediate and visible. At the same time, reconstruction aid must be targeted locally and under stringent conditions to prevent its being siphoned off and abused by the regime in Belgrade.

The aim of a new approach must be to jump-start region-wide development, and encourage economic integration--regionally and with Europe--even where political integration remains to come. Integration into European security and political structures should be offered with clear steps and schedules established for achieving membership.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, the West must maintain its pressure on the Belgrade regime--not just on Milosevic but on the entire establishment, which has prosecuted the deadly Greater Serbian agenda. As long as the Milosevic government remains in power, the West has only won a partial victory, which it may well come to regret. International troops have already been deployed in a half-dozen locations in the region, but not yet where most of the conflict has emanated from. A smooth passage to representative democracy seems unlikely in Belgrade. Therefore, even as NATO troops enter Kosovo, politicians, diplomats, finance ministers and military planners must be looking forward and even considering that further deployments in Yugoslavia may become necessary. The wars in the Balkans will not be over until the politics and the parties that prosecute them have been changed once and for all.

Anthony Borden is executive director and Christopher Bennett a senior editor of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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