Int. Herald Tribune
Yugoslav voters' choice is also about the future of Europe

Bodo Hombach

Paris, Saturday, September 23, 2000

BRUSSELS - The elections in Yugoslavia on Sunday are about the future of Serbia in Europe - and about the future of Europe as a whole.

A decade of President Slobodan Milosevic's regime has carried Yugoslavia from relative prosperity and freedom to poverty, brutalization, repression and war. Neighbors who once looked enviously at Yugoslavia now view the Serbian people with a mixture of pity and anxiety.

The elections Sunday provide the chance to vote for a European future, reconstruction, economic development and security. The vast majority in Serbia want that future. They do not believe - and who would? - that Mr. Milosevic will deliver it. It is vital that the voice of the majority is unmistakably heard. The regime is nervous as never before. Its propaganda becomes ever more hysterical. The regime has laid clear plans to falsify the election result, abandoning even the veneer of allowing any kind of election observer presence. But no one will believe in such a ''victory,'' especially when the most reliable opinion polls have been showing an opposition lead of up to 20 per cent.

Nothing will be the same after the elections. Whatever happens, politically they will mark the beginning of the end for Mr. Milosevic, and the beginning of democratic change in Serbia. The isolation that Mr. Milosevic has brought upon Serbia must not be permitted to help him hang onto the last shreds of power. Therefore the international community must intensify the work it has already been doing to support the democratic forces in Serbia - the independent towns, the free media and so on - and take as partners in planning a better future for Serbia those who have the real democratic mandate.

A European future for Serbia is the concrete promise of the heads of government of all of the European Union, Group of Eight, southeastern European and other participating countries at the Sarajevo Stability Pact summit meeting in July 1999. The EU plays a leading role in the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe which specifies the wish to integrate fully the countries of southeastern Europe into the EU's structures. All involved are waiting impatiently for the moment when they can welcome Yugoslavia into the pact, and back into the European mainstream.

There can be no peace and stability without economic progress; equally, economic progress will never be sustainable without peace and stability. So advances must be made in parallel in the areas of democratization and human rights, economic reconstruction and development, and security matters. To support these goals in the region, the pact's participants will roll out 2.4 billion ($2.1 billion) worth of projects by April next year.

This package is a powerful signal and motivation for all involved in rebuilding southeastern Europe. But there is still more on offer. The European Commission is proposing significant additional spending in the region over the next five years, including a major sum for a newly democratic Serbia. The opportunities are huge. Regional politicians and their electors recognize that. Serbia's people now have the opportunity to show that they want to be part of this new spirit of hope, and achievement, in the Balkans.

Several countries in the region are already deep in negotiations for EU membership, including Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia is negotiating association with the EU. Other countries such as Croatia and Albania are moving in the same direction.

The EU has just announced measures to open EU markets to southeastern European producers. In the year since the Stability Pact was agreed, the rate of foreign direct investment in the region has doubled. Co-operation among southeastern European countries has improved out of all recognition. Serbia's isolated and anomalous position at its heart has not prevented considerable progress across the region; but Serbia's wholehearted participation would significantly accelerate and consolidate the achievements, to the long-term benefit of the whole continent.

Many decent voters in Serbia will fear that they may win the vote but lose the count. Their skepticism is understandable. But the difficult road ahead will not be made easier by fatalistic acceptance of fraud, intimidation or violence. The Serbian people must use their vote Sunday. European Union and G-8 countries and others must hear their voice and, using the Stability Pact to the full, work with them toward a peaceful and prosperous future for a democratic Serbia in Europe.

Bodo Hombach, a former cabinet minister in the German government, is special co-ordinator of the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe.

Original article