The next step in the Balkans

Wresting recovery from crisis is a chess game

Planning for a Balkans-wide reconstruction and development initiative needs to begin in earnest. Doing so will be a chess game.

Obviously, a major issue will be the timing and circumstances of the return of Kosovo refugees. If refugees do not return in large numbers, the NATO "victory" will be Pyrrhic; however, pressuring Kosovar refugees to go back before they are ready will be against international norms and confuse Western publics that have been sensitized to their tragic circumstances.

However, too many refugees going back too quickly could create humanitarian risks and even be politically destabilizing. Handled poorly, this issue could undermine all other efforts to assist the region following the termination of the conflict.

At the same time, Albania and Macedonia need assistance to deal with the social and economic impact of massive numbers of refugees. Efforts in this regard must be initiated quickly before donor country interest to do so recedes. They must be calibrated carefully with consideration of the influence this aid can have on the decisions of refugees to return to Kosovo.

When will the repair of the damage done to Yugoslavia begin?

President Clinton and other European leaders have said that the war is not directed against the Serbian people. At the same time they have said that aid will not be given for recovery so long as President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.

Will the country be held hostage to Mr. Milosevic's presence, even while the extent of damage done by the NATO bombings and the severe effects on civilian life become clearer?

On the other hand, providing assistance to Yugoslavia while Milosevic remains in office could reduce domestic pressure for his removal and would be seen, by some, as rewarding an indicted war criminal.

The process of political, social, and economic reform of Croatia and Bosnia in the wake of earlier conflicts in the region is far from complete. It would be a sad irony if attempting to recover from the newest crisis in the region reduced efforts to support recovery from the previous ones.

In short, thought, resources, and action need to be put behind the rhetoric of Western leaders to support a Balkans-wide reconstruction program.

There are some signs that this process is starting. Recent donor conferences on Albania and Bosnia have expressed substantial aid commitments. The European Union and the World Bank have announced an agreement to coordinate a Balkans economic recovery initiative.

Still, the past record of international attempts to address the economic and social impacts of massive refugee movements is very mixed, as is the record of supporting recovery once conflict has abated.

The interest of the international community has often been the temporary recruiting of donor and potential recipient states. Recovery strategies, typically, have been poorly conceived. Resources have been wasted, opportunities lost, and little of sustainable value achieved. Perhaps, given the stakes involved in this instance, and the proximity to Western Europe, aid initiatives in the Balkans can produce effective results.

Here are a few perspectives worth keeping in mind as aid efforts proceed:

*The social challenges in this region far exceed the economic ones. Yet, addressing economic challenges of recovery may be the most effective way to help people envision a future for themselves.

*It is good that recovery initiatives are regional in scope, but not everything can be done within a regional framework. Despite differences, these countries have been tied together in many ways including commerce, trade, transportation, labor migration, etc. Which of these regional links to build upon, and which to curtail, will be key questions.

*The countries of the region are adjusting to post-cold-war economic realities. Difficult choices will have to be made between building on existing structures by stimulating a process for their revision, or building new ones.

*The aid initiative must reach beyond priorities espoused by central authorities. Strengthening civil society and involving it in making and implementing these choices will be difficult but critical to longer-term success.

*Each of the countries present very different economic, social, and political challenges. Governance structures and capacity to absorb aid differ from one country to another. Aid strategies must be devised taking into account these different situations, lest resources be lost to corruption and inefficient programming.

Finally, goals and objectives must be well-defined with careful sequencing of steps leading to their accomplishment. Urgent needs must be responded to and procedures adopted that permit this; but short- and medium-term recovery possibilities must be linked to longer-term development prospects and commitments.

While these perspectives are reasonably simple in concept they will be hard to put into practice.

Poorly implemented aid approaches can represent not only lost opportunities, they can actually undermine the longer-term prospects for economic, social, and political recovery of a region that has endured so much displacement and destruction.

While the region has been through horrific experiences, all efforts must now turn to wresting genuine recovery from disaster.

*Dennis Gallagher is executive director of the Refugee Policy Group, an independent center for policy research, based in Washington and Geneva. He often visits the Balkans.

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