SCMP Saturday, October 7, 2000


In with the new

The world had witnessed the sudden collapse of Eastern bloc totalitarian regimes many times before the current demise of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. And yet the sudden acceleration of events, the overnight change in the political landscape and the euphoric street scenes that followed could not fail to create a sense of history taking place before our eyes.
It now appears that Milosevic is finished. And yet it seems hardly credible that such an arch survivor has finally been forced to bow to the will of the people. But if Milosevic has gone, and gone for good, the people will not have long to savour their triumph. Yugoslavia remains in crisis. It will take years to rebuild the economy. And the many other problems facing the fractured region will not simply disappear with the absence from the scene of one man, however powerful. But there is no doubt that the defeat of Milosevic holds out renewed hope for peace across the whole of the troubled Balkan region.
Even before opposition leader, former law professor Dr Vojislav Kostunica, declared himself the new president of Yugoslavia in the early hours of Friday morning, the European Union was preparing to lift sanctions. That is likely to be done formally when foreign ministers meet in Luxembourg on Monday. The US, which is preparing to recognise a new government in Yugoslavia, will do the same.
In the meantime, Serbian opposition leaders have set up a "crisis committee" to fill the administration void and maintain order until a new government is confirmed. An invitation has gone out to Montenegro to join the committee. The Western-leaning Montenegrin Government refused to take part in the September 24 election. Its strained relations with the Milosevic regime resulted in a Serbian trade blockade and more Serbian paramilitaries being drafted in to quell any opposition.
Perhaps a new partnership can be forged under Dr Kostunica. He has already asked Yugoslavians to put the past behind them and urged that there be no recriminations against the deposed president. It is to be hoped that he is equally anxious to heal territorial wounds and ready to start negotiations on an equal footing.
On the wider stage, the way is clear to take up French President Jacques Chirac's proposal of a Balkan conference. In a new atmosphere of realism and moderation it might be possible to settle some of the many other contentious ethnic and constitutional issues that have made the region a powder-keg for many years. Encouragingly, while global attention has been focused on events in Yugoslavia, ethnic groups in neighbouring trouble spots have been slowly settling into relative calm. Tension in Bosnia has eased sufficiently for the Nato peacekeeping force to be cut back by one-third and the economy there has begun to improve as trade links resume across what was so recently regarded as enemy territory. Former refugees are returning to their old homes in increased numbers. In the first six months of the year, 20,000 people ventured back, three times the number during the same period in 1999. This rebuilding process is slow, but it shows that bitter divisions can be healed.
Serbs too, have returned to homes in the Muslim-Croat Federation. In some cases they actually outnumber local Croats without igniting further trouble. In Croatia, a coalition Government is concentrating on increased economic ties with the West and the moderate regime of Prime Minister Ivica Racan is handing over indicted war criminals to the Hague tribunal.
But beneath the uneasy calm there are strong and disturbing undercurrents. Civil war, anarchy and ethnic hatreds have produced a region infiltrated by powerful criminal gangs. Montenegro is overrun with Italian Mafia, Russian gangsters and drug and gun dealers. Albanians run a flourishing illegal arms trade and control prostitution rings that trade in desperate women from as far afield as Russia.
In Kosovo, the remnants of a once large Serb population live under a constant state of siege. Only the bravest - or most rash - dare travel without a Nato intervention force escort. Kosovar Albanians continue to plan for an independent state, while others call for a Greater Albania, which would take in large tracts of Macedonia too. Perhaps the only hope of settling the issues of Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia is a Balkan conference. Some issues appear intractable at present, but after years of war there is no gainsaying people's hunger for peace and prosperity.
Unquestionably, there will be thorns along the path the West has to walk with the new president. Dr Kostunica vehemently denounced the Nato bombing and will not hand over indicted war criminals for trial. However, he has spoken of establishing a "truth commission" to examine Serb atrocities and that may be one way to resolve a looming conflict with the UN. Compared to the situation with Milosevic in power, these are minor considerations. All effort now must be made to help Yugoslavia to move towards stability, economic prosperity and a permanent peace.