Russia stops EU aid for Milosevic's opponents

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Russia has withdrawn objections to European support for an outspoken independent Belgrade newspaper but is blocking three other European Union projects to promote democracy and human rights in Serbia.

Yesterday the EU announced at least 3m ecus (£2.4m) of aid for Nasa Borba, the most important independent daily in Serbia. The cash is to buy newsprint for the paper.

This is one of 10 projects put together by the EU last year under a scheme to foster democracy and human rights in the former Yugoslavia. But Russia blocked all of them in the United Nations sanctions committee last year and only lifted reservations last week after protests by EU representatives.

The EU has another 5m ecus for this year. However, Russia continues to block two projects to help periodicals in Kosovo, a province in Serbia inhabitated by ethnic Albanians, and a third for the Humanitarian Law Fund, a non-governmental organisation in Serbia investigating human rights violations in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Croatia.

Russia supports lifting international sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro, which form rump Yugoslavia. Russia is also the chief international backer of Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, who has cracked down on publications critical of his regime.

"The reason the Russians gave for blocking the aid is that it claimed that the EU was stopping Russian aid for Serbian state-controlled media,'' said one official.

He added that Russia's objection appeared to be aimed at weakening President Milosevic's domestic critics. "The Russians are strong-arming the West to help Milosevic," said another official..

Control of the media has been crucial to Mr Milosevic's hold on power and newsprint has become a political tool in his campaign to strangle the few surviving independent publications.

Since the imposition of econcomic sanctions in mid-1992, Serbia has been unable to produce enough newsprint to meet the needs of all the newspapers and magazines - mainly pro-government and militantly nationalist - that have proliferated over the past few years.

The UN has approved imports of some newsprint to rump Yugoslavia but the government has seized control of the import process. A quota system was introduced which supplied newsprint - at a subsidised rate - almost exclusively to publications towing the government line. The independent and opposition controlled press has been so marginalised that its influence, always limited to the intelligensia in Belgrade, has been reduced in some cases to less than 200 copies.

Nasa Borba is the successor to the daily Borba, which had been taken over last year by the state because its independent coverage of political events in Serbia and the war in Bosnia. Many of the paper's best journalists left to found Nasa Borba, meaning Our Borba. But the paper was prevented from reaching newsstands due to lack of newsprint.

According to Peter Lukic, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Serbian weekly Vreme, the lack of international support for the independent press in Serbia has left it to the mercy of the regime, which has benefited from the world's indifference.

In the latest edition of the London-based Balkan War Report, Mr Lukic wrote: "Diplomats and foreign officials who meet Milosevic avoid the issue of the media, preferring to concentrate on settlement of the war [in Bosnia] - and failing to recognise that the two matters are intimately connected.''