The Balkan trilogy

Europe could be left to find a solution

Monday May 29, 2000

The renewed fighting in the Presevo valley, in southern Serbia, between Yugoslav army units and ethnic Albanians is one of several, recent reminders that the situation in the Balkans, nearly a year after the "liberation" of Kosovo, remains volatile. The final status of Kosovo, a de facto UN-Nato protectorate but still sovereign Yugoslav territory, is nowhere near being resolved. In Serbia, the indicted war criminal, President Slobodan Milosevic, has been conducting a crackdown on what his regime describes as "western-backed terrorists". This instability, which extends to Montenegro and is intensifying ahead of scheduled local elections which Mr Milosevic's party is expected to lose, has been exacerbated by a spate of unexplained assassinations of Milosevic associates and the continuing economic dislocation caused by Nato bombing and western sanctions.

The potentially explosive situation within Serbia, and its worrying implications for overall, European-led efforts to bring lasting political and economic stability to the Balkans, will be on the agenda in Moscow today when Romano Prodi, the EC president, and Antonio Guterres, the Portuguese prime minister whose country holds the EU presidency, are due to meet President Vladimir Putin. Russia remains deeply ambivalent about the methods employed by the west to force democratic change in Serbia. It has undermined attempts to isolate Mr Milosevic and bring him and his cronies to justice in The Hague by giving the regime loans and welcoming Dragoljub Ojdanic, the Yugoslav defence minister and an indicted war criminal, to Moscow.

Although Mr Putin's men now say this invitation was a mistake, they sent another hostile message last week when Russia boycotted a meeting of the multilateral committee set up to ensure observance of the 1995 Dayton peace accords in Bosnia. The Russians' sympathy for their beleaguered fellow Orthodox Slavs is undoubtedly partly responsible for the mixed signals from Moscow. But a new factor is Mr Putin, whose inclinations are far from clear. Europe's broader hopes of building a stronger political and trade relationship with Russia rest very much on securing a common approach in the Balkans. Put plainly, this matters far more to the EU states than another area of dispute - Mr Putin's ruthless war against the Chechens.

Russia is not the only problem. China, which has never forgiven US and Nato "global hegemonists" for attacking Serbia and bombing its Belgrade embassy, is reinforcing its ties with Mr Milosevic. But the biggest threat to Europe's Balkan policy is emerging in an entirely different quarter - in America. Only intense lobbying by the White House prevented the US congress passing measures earlier this month which could have forced a US troop withdrawal from Kosovo by next summer and suspended American reconstruction aid. This narrow squeak does not mean the argument is over. The conviction that the Balkans are a European problem which must be solved by Europeans and that Europe (as usual) is not bearing its fair share of the burden appears to be gaining ground in political circles.

After his Moscow summit, Mr Prodi and Mr Guterres visit Washington on Wednesday to meet President Bill Clinton. They will doubtless seek (and receive) assurances about America's Balkan commitment. But, increasingly, lame-duck Mr Clinton is not in a position to deliver. Europe has to find a way to get out of this Russian-Chinese-American squeeze. The only person it helps is the deeply undeserving Slobodan Milosevic.

Original article