The forgotten war

It's time to ease sanctions on Serbia


The Guardian - Thursday October 28, 1999

It was only a few months ago - yet it already seems like another era. Nato's air war over Kosovo was escalating and so, too, was Tony Blair. In a hawkish, emotional speech to the Romanian parliament in Bucharest on May 4, the prime minister bluntly declared that President Slobodan Milosevic was the real target. "Serbia can rejoin the world community. But that prospect will only be a reality when corrupt dictatorship is cast out and real democracy returns... a return to democracy in the former Yugoslavia will unlock a better future for the whole region," Mr Blair said. "I pledge to you now: Milosevic and his hideous racial genocide will be defeated."

Five months after Mr Blair delivered his Bucharest ultimatum, the international focus has shifted to East Timor, Chechnya and other dramas. Last July's symbolic Sarajevo summit now looks like a diplomatic footnote to an already half-forgotten conflict. That the world has moved on is hardly surprising. The problem is that Serbia and neighbouring troublespots have not moved with it. Belgrade has seen no velvet revolution, nor any violent one, either. The political opposition remains divided, the country's economy remains in the shattered state in which the US air force left it.

The Kosovo "genocide" of Albanians has been halted, only to be replaced, as we report today from Orahovac, by the continuing, de facto ethnic cleansing of the province's Serb minority. Kosovo's future status remains shrouded in disagreement. The same might be said of Montenegro, failing economically and agitating desperately for equal status within the rump Yugoslav federation or outright independence. Albania, too, is showing signs of instability. There is no firm evidence of the consolidation of the Balkan states within the new Europe, as promised by Bill Clinton and others, nor is there any in sight. And heading this inventory of unfinished business is Mr Milosevic himself - an indicted war criminal, the man most responsible, the man Mr Blair vowed to cast out, the man who is still sitting pat in Belgrade.

Mr Milosevic's fate is key to the resolution of all these issues. Without him and his ultra-nationalist bullies, Serbia would undoubtedly move quickly to free elections. Without him, unconditional western humanitarian and reconstruction aid would flow. Without him, the real possibility of a new Balkan war over Montenegro would rapidly recede. Without him, the chances of lasting settlements in both Kosovo and Bosnia would increase immensely. Without Mr Milosevic and his decade of hate, these fractured, tormented bits of Yugoslavia might begin to find a sort of peace.

How can this be achieved? Lamentably, there is even less agreement now than last May. The US, ignoring the lesson of Iraq, continues to insist that tough economic sanctions, including fuel oil, must be maintained. It believes this will spur the Serbian populace to mass revolt as winter exacerbates its misery. Serbian opposition leaders and European countries like France and Germany believe the opposite - that the swingeing nature of the embargo is helping Mr Milosevic by enabling him to demonise the west as the common enemy of all Serbs.

Totalitarians like Mr Milosevic exploit and thrive on suffering, hardship, and pain. Shared prosperity is never their aim, only power and personal gain. A western-assisted economic recovery would bring genuine political renewal in its wake and, ultimately, deliver Mr Milosevic to The Hague tribunal. It is time to stop punishing the Serbian people for our failure to keep our promises.


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