The Guardian - West relies on fuel to oil the wheels of Serbian politics

With the imminent arrival of the first tankers, the EU's 'energy for democracy' plan is about to be tested

Thursday November 25, 1999

Chris Bird in Belgrade

A small huddle of western diplomats shivered in the snow on Serbia's border with Macedonia yesterday, waiting for 15 tanker trucks carrying heating oil which the European Union hopes will fuel domestic opposition to the Yugoslav leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and bring Serbia in from the political cold.

The EU's "energy for democracy" initiative targets Serbian cities with administrations opposed to the Yugoslav leader. The message: this is just a token of western aid Serbs can expect if Mr Milosevic goes.

Yesterday's planned delivery of 350 tonnes of heating oil, taken to the border by Britain's Crown Agents, is part of a pilot project worth 4.4m euros to provide free fuel to the cities of Nis and Pirot until next April.

The fuel would heat up to 30% of the cities' homes, with the knock-on effect of taking pressure off Serbia's creaking electricity grid, already reeling from years of neglect before the Nato air strikes.

The EU plans to spread the project to other cities. "This really helps the citizens of Nis because the EU is paying for the oil," the city's mayor, Zoran Zivkovic, told the Guardian yesterday. "It's a tough economic situation and many people can't pay their bills."

The thick snowfall which blanketed the country yesterday underlined the cold winter ahead which Denis McNamara, regional head of the United Nations refugee agency, said is the organisation's main concern for the estimated 700,000 Serb refugees in the Yugoslav federation who have fled Croatia, Bosnia and, most recently, Kosovo.

"Electricity and heating are the concern, people are having a very hard time," said Mr McNamara, whose organisation yesterday appealed for $200m (£125m) for Serb refugees. Milk and meat are scarce, with suppliers refusing to sell at prices set artificially low by the state.

But the EU's energy for democracy is political, not humanitarian, and Mr Zivkovic also happens to be the deputy head of the main opposition Democratic party. He keeps strong ties with the west, which the state media use to paint him as a traitor. Last weekend, a petrol bomb was thrown at the Nis Democratic party headquarters.

Michael Graham, head of the European commission's office in Belgrade, is in charge of the EU initiative. "I'm not posted here to advocate a change in government, it's not an appropriate role for me," Mr Graham said. He added that the fuel deliveries were "a message to tell the Serbs we are not against them, that we're willing to work with democratic forces".

The deliveries have been dismissed by Goran Matic, Yugoslavia's information minister, as "a scam - They want to turn Serb voters into Pavlovian dogs."

The fuel deliveries come as international oil sanctions against Serbia already leak like a sieve - Belgrade's streets are choked with cars which run on fuel smuggled in from countries surrounding Serbia, despite EU pressure on those such as Hungary and Romania which want EU membership.

The EU deliveries appear to be the beginning of the end for sanctions. The EU has already substantially increased its aid to Serbia since the Nato bombing campaign to 56m euros.

The US, meanwhile, has said it would end sanctions if there were free elections in Serbia and the Serbian parliament will debate today a call for local and national elections.

Belgrade could do worse than call the west's bluff. Many western officials admit privately that in their desperation to see Mr Milosevic go, they are backing an opposition which is disunited, out of touch with the majority of the 10m population and which regularly shoots itself in the foot.

"I think Milosevic would win an election now," admitted one western official in Belgrade.,2763,107465,00.html

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