Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Great Expectations

In the aftermath of the Sarajevo summit, there is hope that the international community will finally take a regional approach to the Balkans.
It is easy to be cynical about last week's gathering of some 40 world leaders and 17 international organisations aiming to bring stability to the Balkans. It was, after all, long on rhetoric, short of ideas and failed to come up with new cash for the region. But it took place. And it took place in Sarajevo. Moreover, it may yet herald a fresh, long-term approach to resolving the deep-rooted problems of south eastern Europe.

The summit has raised expectations among ordinary people, not only in the Bosnian capital, but throughout the region. It has also formally endorsed a new international approach to the Balkans - one advocated by peace lobbyists for years - namely that of addressing issues on a regional basis, as opposed to the piecemeal approach, dealing with each crisis area in isolation, which has hitherto characterised international intervention in the region. And it has put south-eastern Europe firmly on the international agenda.

What now? Probably not much for the next month, as Brussels and other European capitals shut down for the summer. But come September, the diplomats who dreamed up the so-called Stability Pact and put together the summit will have to come up with the substance - and the cash - to make it meaningful.

At present, for all the talk of a mini-Marshall Plan, the Stability Pact is at most, a vague commitment to the peoples of the Balkans, assuring them that they have not been forgotten and promising them that they will, somehow, be assisted in making a successful transition to democratic rule.

To help achieve this and review progress, a south-eastern Europe "regional table" is to be set up under the auspices of an EU-appointed Stability Pact co-ordinator, the German Bodo Hombach, who is currently setting up a small office in Brussels.

A lot may depend on Mr Hombach, a dynamic fixer nominated by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who was present in Sarajevo and is expected to prepare a work plan in advance of the first meeting of the "regional table" which has been scheduled for September.

However, sceptics find it difficult to see how exactly Mr Hombach's office, the regional table, and three "working sub-tables" on "democracy and human rights", "economic reconstruction, development and co-operation" and "security", will fit into the already confused institutional political architecture of the Balkans. And international organisations are less than enamoured by the prospects of an outsider telling them what they should be doing.

Most international agencies which have been attempting to put Bosnia back together for the past three-and-a-half years have, in any case, have already altered their internal structures to reflect a more regional approach. The European Commission and World Bank, for example, have joined forces to set up a new office in Brussels to co-ordinate aid for south-eastern Europe.

On the eve of the Sarajevo summit this office succeeded in raising pledges of $2.08 billion to meet immediate humanitarian needs in Kosovo and it has scheduled a donors' reconstruction conference for October.

Ultimately, Mr Hombach may find that his principal role is to come up with viable proposals for initiatives which might contribute to regional stability and to lobby governments to ensure that they provide adequate funding, thus keeping the Balkans on the west European political agenda. Already Mr Hombach is seeking proposals to put to the September meeting.

In Sarajevo, US President Bill Clinton announced a series of limited economic initiatives, including reduced tariffs on Balkan exports such as shoes, as well as new money to promote private enterprise across the region. And the UK put a series of infrastructure proposals to the Finnish EU Presidency. But beyond that, a dearth of fresh ideas is a major problem.

Gerald Knaus, an Austrian diplomat and seasoned Balkan hand who has just formed a Balkan-minded think-tank called the European Stability Initiative, says that the few Balkan successes already achieved must be built upon. He points to currency boards, which have helped steady currencies in Bulgaria and Bosnia; the institution of the ombudsman in Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation; and the Open Society Institute.

But then there is Serbia. Although Montenegro, Serbia's tiny partner in the Yugoslav federation was invited to attend the Sarajevo summit and stands to benefit from new regional initiatives, Serbia will be excluded from this would-be "new Balkan order" and will remain an international pariah as long as President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.

And given the country's temperament, size and key position in the heart of the Balkans, it may yet be able to spoil the party for others and hinder all moves to turn the Stability Pact from a laudable if long-overdue idea into a working programme for the entire region.

Christopher Bennett is a senior editor with IWPR and author of Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse (New York University Press, 1995).

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