Balkans risk being quietly forgotten as the world faces new crises in 2003

BELGRADE – The scars of the Balkan wars healed slowly this year, but the legacy of ethnic hatred, political turmoil, economic ruin and organized crime will continue to fester in 2003, even as the world moves on. The unstable young democracies of Southeastern Europe will have to shoulder more and more of the burden for their own transition in the coming year, as the world lurches toward new crises and yesterday’s flashpoints are forgotten. Whether they can take the tough decisions required, such as bringing wanted war criminals to justice, will determine their progress toward Europe or their relegation to the status of, as one analyst said, «a perpetual basket case.» In Bosnia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) and Kosovo, international peacekeepers quietly scaled down operations despite assurances from NATO and the United Nations of unwavering commitment to regional security. The UN transferred its Bosnian policing responsibilities to the European Union yesterday, representing the end of an era of UN peacekeeping and police work in the country which suffered most during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Although the seven-year UN police mission is generally seen as a success, the UN’s deployment in Bosnia will be mainly remembered for its failure to prevent the 1992-95 conflict, Europe’s worst since WWII. In another former Yugoslav republic, FYROM, the EU is expected to deploy its first military mission in February as NATO ends its operations to keep the peace after an ethnic Albanian uprising last year. The seven-month rebellion nearly triggered another Balkan war, and ethnic tensions remain high despite successful parliamentary elections in September which gave broad representation to the ethnic Albanian minority. But in this frayed corner of Europe, progress in one area means little in another. Across FYROM’s northern border, the Serbian province of Kosovo is still a hotbed of ethnic hatred three years after war between ethnic Albanians and Serbs ended with a NATO air campaign and a UN administrative takeover. A pro-independence government representing the ethnic Albanian majority has begun to take responsibility for day-to-day affairs but intolerance persists on both sides of the ethnic divide. With basic issues such as security and the return of more than 200,000 Serb refugees proving extremely difficult to resolve, the big question of Kosovo’s final legal status – namely its possible independence from Serbia – is not even discussed. Coming to terms with the atrocities of the past is vital for ethnic reconciliation throughout the region, but most victims of war crimes are still waiting for justice. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic continues to whip up nationalist sympathies in Serbia with his dogged defense against war crimes charges at The Hague, as the prosecution fumbles for a smoking gun to prove without doubt his responsibility for atrocities. NATO peacekeepers launched several failed operations to track down Bosnia’s most wanted alleged war criminal, former Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic, but UN prosecutors dismissed the moves as nothing more than propaganda. Meanwhile Karadzic’s military commander and fellow genocide suspect, Ratko Mladic, is believed to be living in Serbia under the protection of the Yugoslav military, allegations Belgrade vehemently denies. For its part, Zagreb has refused to extradite retired General Janko Bobetko, a national hero who was charged in September with war crimes against ethnic Serbs allegedly committed during the 1991-95 war in Croatia. The decision cost Croatia the ratification of an association and stabilization pact with the EU, a major step toward membership. On the political scene, 2002 saw a clean sweep for old-guard nationalist parties in Bosnia’s general elections despite international backing for moderate reformers. The top international envoy to Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, responded by announcing major changes to political institutions agreed at the 1995 Dayton peace conference. He also vowed to get tough with corruption after it emerged that a Bosnian firm was selling military equipment to Iraq via a state-owned Yugoslav company. «In countries where we have tried to establish peace after war, our priority should always be the rule of law first and democracy second,» he said. «Only if you establish the rule of law can you have decent democratic practices.» Serbia and Montenegro, the last two republics remaining in Yugoslavia, agreed in March to stay within a loose federation after Yugoslavia is abolished in the coming months. But the signs of a steady transition have not been encouraging. Three presidential polls have failed in the Yugoslav republics in the past two months due to insufficient turnout, reflecting widespread voter discontent at politicians seen as either corrupt or out of step with society.

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