The G8 Summit: Reconstruction: No aid for Serbia until Milosevic regime goes

AS THE FINAL elements of the Kosovo peace deal slotted into place yesterday, Western leaders turned their attention to the rebuilding of those parts of the Balkans where Yugoslavia'sPresident, Slobodan Milosevic, does not hold sway.

After strenuous Russian efforts, the communique issued at the end of the G8 summit betrayed no hint of Serbia's pariah status. But Western leaders left no doubt that very little of the funds made available by a Balkan "stability pact" would be flowing to Belgrade in the near future. Certainly not while President Milosevic is in power.

Not all statesmen put this in such blunt terms. President Jacques Chirac of France described Mr Milosevic as a "big obstacle to reconstruction". He was not asking for his speedy overthrow. "It's up to Serbia to draw the conclusions, but the quicker they do it, the better for everyone," is all he would say.

Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, was more forthcoming, laying out Western conditions for aid in unusually stark terms: "Reconstruction aid, re-establishment of economic structures and reincorporation into Europe need democratisation, and that is not possible with Milosevic," he said. Faced with that kind of hawkishness, Tony Blair had little choice but to turn up the heat, not only on the Serbian leadership, but also on its people.

At the start of the air campaign, Nato had been at pains to stress that the bombs falling on Belgrade were not aimed at ordinary Serbs. Now, with the war over, Mr Blair raised the question of national guilt.

"There is no way that we are going to agree to any reconstruction programme for Serbia while Milosevic is there, and the more that I see what has happened in Kosovo... the Serbian people have the responsibility to make Milosevic culpable for these crimes," the Prime Minister said. It was, he added, very much in the interest of the Serbian people to dump their leader.

"Our plea to them is: recognise that you can be part of a prosperous Balkan future, but it requires you to embrace the values of democracy and civilisation, and that's inconsistent with having an indicted war criminal as head of your country," Mr Blair said.

But aid of some kind will reach Serbia, if only because even her enemies cannot turn a blind eye to the suffering of the people. Humanitarian help will soon be underway, irrespective of whether Serbia starts displaying commitment to the "democratic and economic reforms" demanded by the G8 as a precondition for help. That leaves the West with a terrible dilemma.

While everybody, including possibly even Russia, is prepared to accept that Mr Milosevic is bad news for his country, the West is split on how to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe in Serbia.

Chancellor Schroder is prepared to err on the side of generosity. "You cannot punish these people because of their President," the German leader said. "When someone goes hungry, you have to feed them." Specifically, he favoured food aid, and also help with the rebuilding of Serbian power and heating plants before the onset of winter.

On this issue, the differences will linger among the Western donors. As even the United States acknowledged, there is a very fine line between urgent aid and post-war reconstruction projects. "And where that line is, is not self-evident," said President Bill Clinton's national security adviser, Sandy Berger. "Is getting electric lights back on for the winter humanitarian, or is it reconstruction?"

Perhaps there will be an answer before the first snow.

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