A river of Balkan challenges

The Danube, some 1,770 miles long, is Europe's largest river after the Volga. It winds in a scraggly reverse S-curve from southern Germany to the Black Sea and has been called a "dustless highway," along which Huns, Mongols, and Turks have moved west, as Romans, Crusaders, and others have made their way east.

Now the Danube has had to cope with flood. To be sure, the littoral countries have been spared the catastrophe that struck the river system of the Elbe on the north side of the continental divide. The great Danubian cities – Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, and Belgrade – have not had the devastation of Prague, Dresden, and others.

The disasters on the Danube were more local, but Passau, Germany, as well as Salzburg, on the river's tributary, had more than their share of destruction. Record crests inundated river banks, drowned dwellings, and polluted wells for hundreds of miles. Navigation stopped, not only because of the torrent and flotsam but also because there was no room for passage under bridges.

All of this was bad news for a region that hoped the river would help recovery from the conflict that had scourged Yugoslavia, its largest entity, for a decade. The Danube city of Vukovar in Croatia, where former President Slobodan Milosevic began his genocidal war of Serbian supremacy in 1991, has hardly begun to claw its way back to normality.

The allied bombing of Serbian targets that put a stop to his oppression of Kosovo in 1999 cut the Danube bridges at Novi Sad and stopped all heavy shipping, the most economic form of bulk transportation, for nearly three years. During that time, unexploded thousand-pound bombs prevented even clearing the wreckage. The flood has further delayed reconstruction. And Serbia's fractured electric power network must still be put together. Meanwhile, another season of tourism, money-on-the-hoof for whole societies, has been blighted.

The prayer that release from the stultifying rule of communism and then the end of the war would open an era of solidarity and cooperation among the nations of the region has not been answered. As a matter of fact, the wish may never come true in that form. The notion of resurrecting something like the Habsburg empire, as a decentralized, tolerant, single administration with Strauss waltzes and peasant costumes, is a nonstarter. There is no such nostalgia.

Last May, 13 states that form the Danube region, from Germany down to Bulgaria, met in Vienna to proclaim future cooperation. It is not to be based on new institutions. The central aim is economic revival through mutually advantageous performance in tourism, transportation – especially Danube shipping – environmental protection, and cultural exchange. Skipping the stage of forming a new regional group, the Balkan states now prefer direct, individual membership in the European Union for economic progress and in NATO for security.

But too much uncertainty stands in the way, the greatest being that just about everything about the Balkans is still only provisional. Yugoslavia is torn by an internal struggle between the forces of nationalism and those seeking an open, Western life. The two worst remaining indicted war criminals, Gen. Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are still at large, obviously under effective protection.

It is also not certain that there will continue to be a Yugoslavia. For the moment it is being replaced by the jury-rigged federation of an ambitious Serbia and a Montenegro that wants out. If Yugoslavia disappears entirely, the legal status of Kosovo as a province of Yugoslavia goes with it, and the Kosovar Albanian majority will demand independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, an entity created by the United States in the Dayton Agreement of 1995, is still under intensive care by the European Union and NATO. It will be many years before its viability is sure. Macedonia, seemingly on the edge of civil war less than a year ago, has calmed down. An election Sept. 15 may show how real that is.

On the whole, the southern Danube area is in serious trouble, financially unstable, wracked by refugee and human rights tensions, riddled with corruption and organized crime. A UN study of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Moldova, Romania, and Kosovo points to a lucrative traffic in women and children for prostitution, work, and begging. One estimate has some 120,000 shipped annually through the Balkans to the EU countries.

Hope for the future calls for years of unflagging moral and material help. Unless they prefer living in a fool's paradise, American and European leaders must add that to their present burdens in the Middle East, Afghanistan, Colombia, and elsewhere. Those who, in addition, are playing with Iraqi adventure should think again.

• Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

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