EU unveils new aid project for Serbian opposition

BELGRADE, Sep 17, 2000 -- (Reuters) The European Union unveiled a new aid project for Serbian opposition towns on Friday, risking allegations from the sanctions-bound government that it was interfering with next week's general elections.

The aid, for schools in towns led by opponents of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, follows the EU's controversial pilot project in politically targeted aid, Energy for Democracy, which provided heating fuel to opposition towns last winter.

The fuel was held up by the government for weeks, and ended up providing significant heating to just two towns, Nis and Pirot.

The government, led by Milosevic, who is seeking a second term in the elections on September 24, portrays the poll as a choice between patriots and traitors sponsored by the West to destroy Yugoslavia.

Michael Graham, chief Belgrade representative of the EU's executive body, the European Commission, acknowledged that Schools for a Democratic Serbia, like its energy counterpart, was political but said it did not amount to interference.

"It is a proof that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for Serbia, and that light is the EU," he told a news conference, adding the project had been planned long before the election was announced.

Graham's deputy, Jan-Willem Blankert, said the EU hoped to have distributed all the project money by the end of the year, to pay for much-needed repairs and new equipment in schools badly neglected due to a long-running economic crisis.

Asked if the EU would be repairing damage done to schools during last year's NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, when school buildings were used to house troops and police, Blankert said he did not know but that the EU had nothing against that.


He said there was unlikely to be a repeat of the Energy for Democracy project, because the need had not turned out to be as great as the international community had first thought, but that other projects would follow if the school aid was successful.

These could include help to improve water distribution, garbage collection or any other municipal service, he said.

Graham said the government had so far not blocked the aid, which began to be distributed 10 days ago. It totals DEM 7.3 million (USD 3.2 million).

The project is part of a risky experiment by Europe to "smarten up" its decade-old sanctions against Yugoslavia, many of which are now widely seen as hurting the population rather than the government and failing to bring about political change.

The latest phase was a "White List" of firms deemed independent of the government and allowed to do business with the EU. All other firms were banned from trading.

Introduced in July, it has proved a huge embarrassment to the EU, since many of the companies on it have ended up being targeted by the government. It will be reviewed in the autumn.

By contrast, diplomats have expressed satisfaction with a black list of Yugoslav officials, banning them from travelling to EU member countries and freezing any assets held there, saying it appears to have sent a powerful message.

If the elections bring about a change of government, the EU has said it will provide substantial aid to Serbia. Norway, not an EU member, unveiled the first concrete offer on Wednesday, pledging to release DEM 35 million (USD 15.5 million).

If Milosevic remains in power, as he is widely expected to try to do whatever the result of the vote, Blankert said aid to opposition municipalities would continue.

Original article