EU, NATO Stalling on Danube Clean-up
2204 GMT, 991006

Summary

NATO and the European Union have rejected appeals from Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine to clean up debris in the Danube River left by NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia. NATO and the EU maintain that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is the impediment to the cleanup. NATO and the EU are the more likely impediments, having hitched the Danube cleanup project on concessions they know Milosevic cannot politically afford.

Analysis

NATO’s air campaign over Yugoslavia caused the collapse of nine bridges into the Danube and Sava rivers. The resulting blockade has cost shipping companies from Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria over $200 million in losses. This is the price Romania and Bulgaria are paying for opening their airspace to NATO, since the European Union has delayed reconstruction aid.

The Balkan Stability Pact, the EU plan of infrastructure development and remuneration for wartime support, has stumbled because EU administrators have made it contingent on cooperation from Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In fact, the EU is hiding behind unrealistic demands of the Milosevic regime to renege on their financial commitment to Balkan reconstruction, possibly expecting Romania and Bulgaria to pick up the tab in hopes of speeding up EU accession talks.

The EU knows Milosevic won’t meet its demands. First, NATO insisted that relief for the Danube was impossible as long as Milosevic was in power. Then, NATO and the EU declined to meet Milosevic’s demands to rebuild three bridges near Novi Sad. Most recently, the EU offered to begin coordination efforts so long as Milosevic allowed Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine to undertake the clean-up process inside Serbia – a deal unacceptable to Milosevic.

At a time when thousands are taking to the streets to protest the regime, Milosevic cannot align with his opponents by allowing a pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-EU constituency into Serbia to build bridges. Moreover, capitulation to NATO or to the EU at this time would undermine Milosevic’s already shrinking support base. By affixing conditions on the reconstruction of the Danube, the EU and NATO have effectively placed the vitality of the regional economy in Milosevic’s hands.

This stand-off with Milosevic has been costly. The loss of the Danube forced transport companies to use more expensive routes by rail or road. Shipping companies from Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria are suffering as their vessels are stranded to the north of Yugoslavia. Ukraine’s Danube Shipping company has lost $47.4 million due to the blockade of 796 vessels. Anti-EU protests from Romanians and anti-NATO protests from Serbs have also created rows between regional governments, as shippers frequently block what few channels bypass the wreckage.

Though the Kosovo war was supposed to draw the EU’s attention to the lack of Balkan economic development, it has yet to happen. The EU has overlooked the economic and development needs of Romania and Bulgaria since the end of the war. The cleanup has been low priority since the economic impact of the blockade is localized. At its peak, the trade capacity of the Danube is one-third that of the Rhine.

Furthermore, the EU is wary of bids by Romania and Bulgaria to initiate EU accession talks. By holding this carrot slightly out of reach, the EU is bargaining for yet another goodwill gesture from the region. As if the ruin of the region’s transport infrastructure was not enough, NATO and the EU now appear to be hinting that Romania, Bulgaria and Ukraine should help cover cleanup expenses.

Though the EU has initiated exploratory projects to initiate an EU restructuring program for the Balkans, the Danube will remain closed until the spring of 2000. This was decided recently by the Danube River Commission, based in Budapest. The commission was unable to secure sponsorship from the EU or distribute a financing project among the 11 member states. Any cleanup must wait for spring.

Aside from the further economic damage to the region, countries settled upstream will then be at risk of severe flooding given the buildup of materials in the river. NATO and the EU have successfully shirked their obligations to wartime allies, and point fingers at Milosevic to absolve themselves of financial responsibility.

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