October 13, 1999

Only the lifting of sanctions can save the Balkans from Nato's folly

Robin Cook's wasteland

- Simon Jenkins -

This week the Nato commander in Kosovo, Sir Mike Jackson, ended his tour of duty and went on holiday. He handed over to a German, but the reality is that Nato's newest colony is now ruled by Agim Ceku, the KLA army commander. An Albanian and former Croatian brigadier, Mr Ceku is being investigated for war crimes against Serbs in Krajina in 1993-95. Britain supports Mr Ceku's rule on the flimsy grounds that his subordinates are "even worse". There is no reason to doubt this judgment.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, once promised to disarm the KLA. The idea of Mr Cook disarming Mr Ceku of so much as the time of day is laughable. Nato's war aim of policing a multi-ethnic, democratic Kosovo is also laughable. All Nato has achieved is to return the Albanian refugees to their homes and help Mr Ceku to power. The KLA, formerly a terrorist minority faction in Kosovo, runs every town and village hall. As for the third of the population who were Serbs and Gypsies before the bombing started, Mr Ceku has "cleansed" three quarters of them, some 200,000 people beaten and bombed from their homes into neighbouring Serbia. When General Wesley Clark last week told CNN that Nato policy was "Serbs out, Albanians in", he meant it.

Serb villages have been burnt under the eyes of Nato troops. According to the Serb patriarchate, 52 Serb Orthodox churches have been classified as destroyed since Nato's arrival. When Serb forces left Kosovo in June, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton promised that Serb civilians and culture would be protected. They have not kept that promise. Of course, stopping revenge killings was going to be hard. That is what the Serbs said in confronting

KLA terrorism last year. The difference is that Nato thought it could do better, bombing its way to "multi-ethnicity".

A week in Yugoslavia has subjected me to constant propaganda, almost all of it from enemies of Mr Milosevic. They make a pathetic and disparate group, their nightly demonstrations in central Belgrade no more impressive than a half-hearted student rally. Only one thing unites them, that Nato's bombing of civilian targets this spring was an outrage as cruel as any ethnic cleansing, and that continued sanctions are counter-productive. "You won, we lost, we were punished: why continue the war?" they cry with one voice.

Belgrade and the second city of Novi Sad are today desperate sights. Nato's bombing of bridges has left the Danube eerily empty of traffic. Giant contorted mounds of concrete and steel form incongruous dams and rapids, aimed in Nato's words to "close for 20 years" what was Europe's greatest waterway. Refineries, office blocks, factories, skyscrapers, stand gaunt, blackened and twisted at the turning of every street. The bombing of Belgrade's executive offices, hospitals, radio stations, factories, trains and buses was patently anti-civilian.

I am all for hard-headedness in foreign policy and have seen many an act of war. But to find British forces attacking hospitals because they might contain soldiers, or dejected factories because their owners might be Milosevic supporters, or the old Victorian bridge at Novi Sad because a fuel truck might cross it, challenges even my realpolitik. I kept wondering what Robin Cook or Clare Short or even Tony Blair would have made of such operations were they in opposition. The Defence Secretary, George Robertson, wrote in The Times last month that they were justified to rid Kosovo of Serbs without loss of British lives. Does that end justify the IRA-style cluster bombing of Nis marketplace?

Yet the bed is made. Yugoslavia may be politically "off message", but Britain is party to installing a regime in Kosovo whose hands are as dirty as Mr Milosevic's. Mr Cook may not be about to ship Mr Ceku off to The Hague, or even make him protect the few remaining Serbs in Kosovo. He has chosen Mr Ceku as his ally and is party to the results. But in doing so he has given a green light to the next bunch of separatists, in Yugoslav's last remaining republic of Montenegro. They are about to stage an independence referendum. They argue that any British Foreign Secretary who can back Mr Ceku of all people can hardly refuse military support to the outcome of a democratic vote. Has not Mr Cook done just that in East Timor? Montenegro awaits his bombers over Belgrade.

Mr Cook would, of course, prefer to see Mr Milosevic go. Indeed, he believes that sanctions must remain in place until that great event occurs. As with the bombing, the legal basis for Mr Cook's economic aggression is unclear. Mr Milosevic has abided by the terms of the Kosovo withdrawal (as Mr Cook has not). He is regularly called a dictator, but he is twice elected and has not indicated any wish to suspend the constitution, under which he stands down in 2001. Serb politics may be chaotic, but they are not moribund. Freedom of speech is extreme and the press is free. Mr Milosevic and his colleagues may be indicted for war crimes, but only a fool could see this as a helpful step towards early elections and exile.

Sanctions have left the roads of Serbia empty of traffic, its airports desolate, its fuel stations closed and its formal economy in ruins. The mayors of Serbia's 36 cities met in Budapest last week to plead with Europe for relief, on the reasonable ground that every one of them is anti-Milosevic. Sanctions hurt them, but put added power in the hands of the regime. Foreign exchange and black market petrol are controlled by Mr Milosevic's mafia. As in Iraq, sanctions make the rulers rich and everyone else, the professionals, the merchants and the workers, poor. They pollute the political economy and degrade public order. The Marxist in Mr Cook seems to think sanctions encourage the workers to rise up in revolt. They do the opposite. They increasingly offer Mr Milosevic an excuse for extra-constitutional action. I could not find a single person in Yugoslavia who regarded sanctions as anything but counter-productive.

I would lift sanctions on Yugoslavia at once, all of them. I would wreck Mr Milosevic's black market with trade, not with bombs. I would cheat his buddies of their fuel franchises and illicit currency rackets, and rebuild the bridges and privatised factories with outside cash. I would reopen links to universities and schools. Nato's blocking of the Danube must be ended. Europe's biggest army of refugees - a third of them fleeing Nato-controlled territory - are now in freezing barracks, hostels, schools and sports stadiums. They need humanitarian work, not just humanitarian aid. Work is what Mr Cook is denying them.

Ask any opposition politician what lifting sanctions would mean and they reply: "Milosevic would declare a victory, and be gone inside a year." Yugoslavia may be a nation in ruins, but it is not immune to the democratic nourishment of trade and outside contact. It is a sort of democracy and can deal with Mr Milosevic without Mr Cook's cackhanded help, as it almost did in 1995.

Needless to say, there are many conspiracy theorists in Belgrade to doubt if Nato really wants any change. They think that Nato leaders like a few monsters about the globe. While Mr Milosevic is in power, Nato need not pay for bomb damage or risk inquiries into civilian deaths. It can continue to "Balkanise" the Balkans. Besieged nations need paranoia to boost their morale. If they cannot be loved, they need to be hated in a bigger cause.

But Yugoslavia is not victim of any Great Game. It is a victim of two mistakes, one by its own rulers, the other by Nato. It is just another poor country lifted from obscurity by Western meddlers, given a public thrashing and dropped back in the bin. When the bombing stopped, Nato merely shrugged and turned elsewhere. The Danube "blocked for 20 years"? Who cares?