Another victim of Milosevic - the environment

Through his catastrophic policies of intolerance and ethnic separatism, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has poisoned the political atmosphere in the Balkans with hatred and violence.

In the aftermath of Operation Allied Force, you can add another tragedy to the list of horrors resulting from Mr. Milosevic's rule: environmental contamination caused by the destruction of the war. During Operation Allied Force's 78 days, beside hitting military targets, NATO consistently bombed strategic sites such as oil refineries, fuel storage depots, fertilizer and petrochemical plants, and numerous other industrial complexes.

Despite choosing to absorb enormous punishment from NATO, Milosevic has nevertheless lost Kosovo. At the same time, as a result of his recalcitrance he has exposed his fellow countrymen - as well as others in neighboring countries - to serious environmental consequences. Many Serbs are now wondering what exactly they gained by their leader's holding out for 2-1/2 months.

The citizens of Western Europe and the US desired an end to Milosevic's tyranny, but were prepared to confront this problem only in a remote, antiseptic fashion - namely, one that didn't jeopardize their own professional soldiers. So the ingredients were ideal in Kosovo for a protracted conflict that saw a substantial portion of the allies' fire power directed toward Serbia's infrastructure.

With significant environmental damage to the air, water, and soil likely, the United Nations, European Union, and a number of other organizations are calling for urgent assessment and cleanup work in and around Serbia.

Contamination of the Danube River ecosystem and the Black Sea is one example of the major environmental harm facing the region. There are concerns that toxins have spilled into the river as a result of the bombing of the oil refinery in Novi Sad and the chemical and fertilizer plant in Pancevo, just outside of Belgrade. The Danube is a source of drinking water for 10 million people in the region.

In addition, fears are being voiced about the impact of depleted uranium (DU) contained in NATO munitions on Serb and Kosovar Albanian civilians. American A-10 Warthog jets, which saw action during the Kosovo conflict, use armor-piercing DU bullets made from nuclear weapons waste. Battlefields littered with the residue of spent DU bullets remain radioactive almost indefinitely and the dust of vaporized DU rounds can be spread widely by wind. The health risks of this to humans and animals are hotly debated.

During the Kosovo conflict, Yugoslav state media - under Milosevic's tight control - devoted extensive coverage to real or imagined environmental damage in order to help galvanize public opinion against NATO. Now in the aftermath of hostilities, this same state media is conspicuously silent about the degree of the damage.

It is a potentially tragic situation: The Yugoslav authorities now are apparently concealing the extent of the environmental danger out of fear of inciting panic. Coming clean on the damage to an already seething public would mean, among other things, acknowledging a problem Serbian authorities are ill-equipped to handle and for which outside assistance is essential.

To further complicate matters, there is a political obstacle to international help for environmental cleanup in Serbia. The US and several key European allies have indicated that, other than the most basic humanitarian aid, no international assistance will be granted to Serbia as long as Milosevic - an indicted war criminal - is in power.

THUS, environmental destruction is another enormous problem Milosevic has caused, and another where his refusal to relinquish power harms the very people he professes to protect.

Clearly, on Milosevic's brutal cost-benefit ledger, his own people have been placed low on the list of priorities.

The sooner Serbs deem their leader's removal their own top priority, the sooner Serbia can start to repair the vast damage done to the atmosphere, both in political and environmental terms.

*Christopher Walker is a New York-based analyst specializing in Eastern European affairs.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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