Real help for the Balkans

The world's most expensive photo of 40 some world leaders."

That's the way one senior US official describes the summit held in Sarajevo this summer where Western leaders announced their latest plan to bring peace to the Balkans. Since the end of the Kosovo conflict, the mood in the region vacillates between fresh hope and cynical jokes about how grand rhetoric will dissolve into empty promises and more turmoil in southeastern Europe.

Is there a clear solution to Balkan instability? Certainly not. The Stability Pact unveiled this summer, with its promise of aid, trade, and investment, is a serious and noble gesture, to be sure. Working groups are now busy trying to coordinate the effort. But this, like all other efforts, is sure to fall short of the mark if Western leaders don't listen more carefully to what people of the region themselves have to say about their problems and future.

The first thing one hears is that nothing can be accomplished on the cheap. And atop the list are the removal of dictator Slobodan Milosevic and the democratization of Serbia. The region is searching for ways to assist the weak and fragmented Serb opposition.

Even in the presidential castle in faraway Prague, Czech leader Vaclav Havel has designated one of his assistants to organize a project aimed at cultivating ties and lending support to Serb democrats, however few in number they may be. But everyone also knows nothing will be accomplished without clear, resolute US leadership.

In Bosnia, segments of the Serb population will always be trouble so long as malign nationalism emanates from Belgrade. Drive through Bosnia's Serb territory, Republika Srpska, and see the flags of Mr. Milosevic's regime hanging from apartment balconies - even after the Serb defeat in Kosovo - and you'll get a sense of the problem.

In Sofia, Bulgaria's President Petr Stoyanov thinks a lot about how Serbia's dictatorship hinders his country's growth beyond being a "democracy of poverty," as he puts it. "Don't expect us to start a new war, though, when you didn't finish the last one," he says.

Montenegrins must be particularly perplexed. The US tells the pro-West, independence-inclined government of Milo Djukanovic it opposes a change in borders, while expecting him and his countrymen to accept the same dictatorial rule that Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo all sought to escape.

From Sofia to Skopje, no one wants more fragmentation. New borders mean new conflicts, not to mention microstates that have little chance of becoming economically viable. But the future of Montenegro, and for that matter of Kosovo, and even Vojvodina, the Yugolslav province populated by ethnic Hungarians, becomes much easier to resolve when democrats are finally in charge in Belgrade.

Will Washington finally accept the fact that the "de-Slobo-fication" of Serbia is not merely desirable, but remains the central prerequisite to stability and prosperity in the Balkans?

The Senate is expected to ask President Clinton to sign the Serbia Democratization Act of 1999, which promises $100 million to increase radio broadcasts to Serbia and the like. If the US alone has already spent more than $20 billion in damage control in the last decade, even this welcome step would seem exceedingly modest in attacking the root of the Balkan problem.

Even if Slobo goes, though, regional leaders understand they have their own work to do. Everyone talks about regional solutions. But when the embargo against Serbia forces Bulgaria to use Romania as a trade route, for example, Bucharest responds by tripling tariffs, dragging its feet on building a new bridge over the Danube - only one exists - and permitting corrupt border officials to enrich themselves with bribes.

Meanwhile, in Bulgaria, despite progress in economic reform, foreign land ownership is still prohibited, overregulation continues to make Bulgaria a difficult place to do business, and corruption, as in Romania, remains ubiquitous.

In Bosnia, ethnicity and the legacy of war are important issues. But Bosnia, like its neighbors, still struggles with economic transition. And the political landscape, says Jacques Klein, the departing deputy high representative in Sarajevo, remains dominated by people who have "communist chips in their brain." No wonder Bosnia, 3-1/2 years after Dayton, has an economy that is 70 percent dependent on foreign aid and a business environment so dominated by severe taxes, regulation, and graft that even McDonald's has given up trying to open.

A Stability Pact for the Balkans is important. But the real pact has to be for the US, its allies, and the region itself to tackle the most difficult and costly problems. Only then will there be a real chance to reverse the misery of the past.

*Jeffrey Gedmin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, is executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative, a network of American and European institutes, politicians, and executives. Craig Kennedy is president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. They led a delegation of experts on a fact-finding mission to the Balkans in August.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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