NEW YORK — A clash of cultures threatens to hold back democratic development in the Balkans. But it's not what you might think.
Though ethnic and nationalist tensions remain a grave problem in many parts of former Yugoslavia, it is the ruinous mix of isolation, dependency, and criminality causing the region's undoing. While no one imagined setting things right in this part of Europe would be quick or easy, the long-term implications of cultures of corruption and criminality entrenching themselves should be of serious concern to North Americans and Europeans who have invested so much to bring stability to the Balkans.
Serbia, a country of 9 million perched in the geographic center of the Balkans, has been subject to blanket sanctions for almost a decade. Western policymakers have chosen international ostracism and isolation for Belgrade, but have come to realize that this policy has sharp limits.
Montenegro, the smaller constituent republic of rump Yugoslavia along with Serbia, is extremely vulnerable. Embroiled in political brinkmanship with Belgrade, the republic is dependent on Western aid to remain afloat.
The United States is providing $77 million in assistance to Montenegro (population 600,000) this year alone. Bosnia and Kosovo, both of which suffered horribly during the wars of the last decade, are now effectively foreign-administered semi-protectorates, largely dependent on external assistance.
And while Serbia's isolation and the dependency of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Montenegro are grave problems, the region's culture of corruption and criminality knows no borders.
These cultures are by no means exclusive of each other. Indeed, isolation and dependency feed the criminality and corruption that plague the region. Sanctions on Serbia enable black markets and transborder criminal enterprises to flourish.
Millions of dollars in aid provided by the UN and other foreign administrators enable vast corruption in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Earlier this month, the US General Accounting Office issued a report indicating that crime and corruption in Bosnia are so pervasive that aid should be withheld until local authorities demonstrate they are serious about changing things.
Organized crime has been a persistent problem throughout the southern Balkans, not to mention the powerful rackets and gangs that operate virtually unmolested in Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, and Macedonia.
With all of its imperfections, the reconstruction process is under way in Bosnia and Kosovo, and there are signs of progress.
In Serbia, any such reconstruction effort is on hold until President Slobodan Milosevic is no longer on the scene. Last month at an international conference on the progress of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright restated their belief that Balkan-wide prosperity and democratization can only happen when Serbia rids itself of Mr. Milosevic.
But while Milosevic finds himself boxed in - indicted as a war criminal and cut off from much of the world - he nonetheless remains in power.
Paradoxically, the West finds itself in a box of its own, already having used considerable military force against Belgrade and unable to withdraw sanctions in more than a token fashion so long as Milosevic is in charge. The loss of face the West would suffer in a significant scaling back of sanctions is unthinkable.
But in the meantime, the benefits that would otherwise accrue to the West from a genuine economic revival throughout Southeastern Europe won't happen as long as sanctions remain in place, a time frame that should exactly mirror the period Milosevic manages to stay in power.
Croatia is one of former Yugoslavia's bright spots. Under the leadership of reform-minded President Stipe Mesic, who replaced the authoritarian and corrupt Franjo Tudjman, Zagreb now supports The Hague-based war crimes tribunal as well as efforts of the international community aimed at keeping peace in Southeastern Europe. But Croatia still faces considerable challenges in overhauling its economy and reorienting its politics.
In areas where the West is heavily engaged, namely Kosovo and Bosnia, there is insufficient political will to tackle the important task of local law enforcement and court administration.
Bernard Kouchner, the head of the UN mission in Kosovo, has criticized key UN member states for the laggardly pace of supplying sorely needed foreign policemen, prosecutors, and judges.
Lofty pronouncements on democracy in Yugoslavia need to be substituted by action on the more pressing need for effective law enforcement and judicial administration at the local level.
The fact is that an anchoring of democratic values in the Balkans will not happen if the international community decides to skip the unglamorous, but essential work needed to stem corruption and crime. To do so would allow far too much of the territory of the former Yugoslavia to carry a shameful legacy of impunity into the future.
*Christopher Walker, who spent 1995 to 1998 in the Balkan region, is an analyst specializing in European affairs.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society