With a little generosity, we could end the Balkan nightmare

There is no reason that Serbia should be forever trapped in a European political underworld

EVERY WAR'S end is a watershed, even a war as strange as the one now ending in Kosovo. It is a time to count the cost, to mourn the dead, and wonder whether the suffering and destruction were worth it - but also to lift the eyes and dream a little of what might be. So this is my dream. That, just conceivably, if the West now acts with real generosity and far-sightedness, we have a chance not just to end a war but to bring lasting stability to the same Balkan region whose instability has plagued Europe for a century.

Now, this all sounds far-fetched, when the first peacekeepers are only just about to cross the heavily mined frontier into Kosovo and when 850,000 refugees have not even started to return home. The Kosovo Liberation Army may open a new season of death by taking understandable revenge on the Serbs who remain in the province. The talk is not of healing, but of whether Mr Milosevic, defeated in Kosovo, will provoke more trouble, in Montenegro or in the Hungarian Vojvodina region of Serbia. Beyond his borders, Macedonia looks more fragile than ever. And surely the odds have shortened on the emergence of a Greater Albania, a spectre that has haunted Europe's chancelleries for 150 years?

But there is no law dictating that the war in Kosovo must be simply the last act of one Balkan war, leading inexorably to the opening of the next. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the lands of the former Yugoslavia, and in particular Serbia, ruled by a regime that is a mutant hangover from a vanished Communist East, should be for ever trapped in a European political underworld, unable to emerge into the sunlight above. Escape is possible. But it will require, as I said, generosity and far- sightedness. In other words, lots of Western money, for a long, long time.

The greatest single disincentive to war is prosperity. Why go to war if you are leading a comfortable life, with no obvious reason to complain? Balkan strife is usually attributed to "ancient ethnic hatreds", played upon by ruthless tyrants. But take Switzerland, held up as a multi-ethnic Eden. Would its French-, German- and Italian-speaking inhabitants have lived together in such harmony had the Swiss standard of living been that of Kosovo? Or, to put it another way, would the Balkan wars of the Nineties have happened if Yugoslavia had enjoyed a German standard of living? In both cases, I doubt it.

Indeed, the entire modern history of Germany is proof of how generosity pays. The origins of the Second World War may be traced, among other things, to the crippling economic terms imposed upon Germany in 1919. How different in 1945. A prostrate Germany was taken back into the community of nations, and a prostrate Europe was helped to its feet by the Marshall Plan, surely one of the most extraordinary acts in history of enlightened self-interest by a great power. Today, war among the ancient rival powers of Western and Central Europe is unimaginable. Might it not be one day even for the Balkans?

There are, of course, two stark differences between the Europe of 1945 and rump Yugoslavia in 1999. First, the architect of misery has not been removed. Unlike Hitler, Slobodan Milosevic, however humiliated and resented, is still in power. Second, the original Marshall Plan was directed at a continent so shattered that even the instinct of vengeance had been destroyed, when the universal mood of "never again" helped foster the seeds of the modern, united Europe. "Never again" is not exactly the prevailing sentiment after Kosovo, which has piled new grudges and new scores to be settled on top of old ones.

But neither distinction invalidates my argument. For the best way to get rid of the Milosevics of this world is to remove the atmosphere of hatred, crisis and isolation that sustains them. The moment Serbia becomes "normal", his days will be numbered. As with Saddam Hussein in Iraq, war and disorder are the oxygen of Milosevic's power. Do not forget that the only period when that power was seriously threatened was not during one of the wars he unleashed, but during the two years between the Bosnian settlement in December 1995 and the first explosion in Kosovo. Fleetingly, ordinary Serbs could contemplate peace and an improvement in their standards of living. At that point, the notion of "never again" starts to make sense.

If that penny has yet to drop in Belgrade, it has long since clattered to earth in other Balkan capitals. If what the reconstruction plans refer to as "South-east Europe" is still a swamp, its perimeters at least are being drained. In the northern Balkans, Slovenia - the richest component of the old Yugoslavia and the intended victim of Milosevic's first war in 1990 - has almost clambered on to terra firma. Along with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, it is poised to enter the European Union in four or five years' time, and could join Nato even sooner. Croatia too is edging towards "normality". But the most striking example lies on the region's southern rim.

Not so long ago (in 1912 and 1913, and then, indirectly, during two world wars) Greece would automatically be swept up in any Balkan conflict. This time, however, no country strove harder to stand aloof. One reason is the well-known sympathy of Greece for Orthodox Christian Serbia, its ally in both world wars. But another, subtler factor is at work. A member of the EU since 1980, Greece has freed itself from the Balkan quagmire and has no intention of being sucked back in. The country has metamorphosed into an economic superpower in the region; what sense in succumbing to ancient animosities, and risking all that has been so painstakingly won?

Thanks to the war, ironically, a siren breeze of prosperity stirs even in Albania, the most backward of the Balkan states. The arrival of Nato armies, with Western habits and Western money, has given the former last redoubt of Maoism a taste of the advantages of being a "normal" country. Albania should not deceive itself; its backwardness, corruption and sheer anarchy will make it a particularly difficult case for treatment. But here too, generosity is the only way.

A start has been made. The major powers have drawn up a Balkan stability pact, promising the countries of the region aid and closer integration into the rich men's clubs of the EU and Nato - even Serbia, once it has acquired a democratic government. Nor are Western governments shying away from the huge cost of reconstruction and investment, anywhere from $20bn for Bosnia alone, to $100bn or more for the region as a whole. If the job is to be seen through, even the latter figure will probably be too little. Today, as bitter peace returns to Kosovo, all the dollars in the world cannot expunge the accumulated suspicions of a decade of war. But Slobodan Milosevic is not immortal. If the West stays the course, even the Balkans can be made normal.

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