Australian coup for Milosevic

Anger in US as Canberra falls out of line by telling new ambassador to present himself to Yugoslav leader

Christopher Zinn, Owen Bowcott

Saturday April 8, 2000

Australia has broken ranks with the west by sending a new ambassador to Yugoslavia and instructing him to hand his credentials to the head of state - President Slobodan Milosevic, who is charged with war crimes.

Charles Stewart, Canberra's new man, arrived in Belgrade on Tuesday. He replaces the outgoing ambassador, Chris Lamb, who left on February 15. A time and date for formal presentation of Mr Stewart's credentials is to be discussed with the Yugoslavian foreign ministry, a spokesman for the embassy said.

Canberra's decision has provoked anger in western capitals, where a policy of sanctions and diplomatic isolation are viewed as crucial in the attempt to make Serbia a pariah state and hasten the downfall of the Milosevic regime.

Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, is understood to have phoned Canberra to urge the administration to drop the idea.

The Foreign Office in London was reluctant to voice any concerns. A spokesman said: "Australian diplomatic representation is a matter for them. We are aware of it. It is not causing us any worry."

The only UN embargo in force against what remains of Yugoslavia - made up of Serbia and Montenegro - is a ban on arms sales. An EU ban on commercial flights was suspended in February; EU sanctions against oil sales and financial investments go on.

There is speculation in the Yugoslav capital that the improvement in relations with Canberra has its origins in missions that visited Belgrade to seek the release of three Australian workers from the aid organisation Care, who were arrested at the beginning of the Kosovo conflict and jailed on espionage charges.

Long meetings were held between leading figures in Australia's large Serbian expatriate community, government representatives and officials from Care, to win the men's release. Malcolm Fraser, a former Australian prime minister who is chairman of Care Australia, went to Belgrade several times to meet Mr Milosevic to lobby for the men's release; they were freed late last year.

Defending its present move, Canberra's department of foreign affairs and trade said the ambassador was needed to serve the large number of Australian citizens and dual nationals living in and visiting Yugoslavia; it did not signify support for the regime.

Mr Fraser insisted that no deal had been struck to secure the aid workers' surprise release: "There were no bar gains." Asked about other nations' refusal to renew diplomatic relations with Belgrade, he replied: "I could think of nothing worse for Australia than to be bound by European Union or Nato policy. We're an independent country, we need to make our own decisions."

EU and Nato states have so far avoided creating the spectacle of a western ambassador paying homage to Mr Milosevic, fearing it would boost his credibility. Mr Stewart's presentation of his credentials to the president is bound to be on Yugoslav TV and the press.

Other governments have avoided this by not rotating ambassadors or by bringing in a lower level of representative.

The US has no diplomatic post in Belgrade; the British, French and Germans have so-called interest sections hosted by other countries and confined to cultural, consular and commercial activities.

Italy is very keen to have a full ambassador to handle the substantial issues between Belgrade and Rome. It wants a deal where a new ambassador does not have to present him or herself to Mr Milosevic.

Under the Vienna convention, a new ambassador is only an ambassador-designate until his "letter of credence" is accepted by the head of state. So Mr Stewart will be Australia's new ambassador only when Mr Milosevic accepts him.

Original article