Kosovo reckoning: Moscow objects to ban on Serbs at Balkan summit

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FORTY WORLD leaders yesterday signed a "Stability Pact" aimed at replacing turmoil in the Balkans with peace and prosperity - only for Russia to clash once more with the West over the exclusion from the gathering of Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia.

The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the US President, Bill Clinton, and more than 40 other European and Balkan political leaders pledged concerted efforts to further economic development, human rights and regional cooperation and security. The sole and glaring absentee was Yugoslavia, barred by the West from any reconstruction aid as long as Mr Milosevic remains in power. But the resounding condemnation that Britain and other countries had wished to include in what will become known as the "Sarajevo Declaration" was blunted by strenuous Russian objections.

Instead, the final statement merely "appealed" to the Yugoslav people "to embrace democratic change. Afterwards however Sergei Stepashin, the Prime Minister, who led Russia's delegation, made clear that even those anodyne words were too strong for Moscow's taste. Excluding Yugoslavia from the Pact, he said, would only delay lasting peace in the Balkans, and add to the suffering of innocent people. "Ten million Serbs will be facing very, very great difficulties by the winter," needing more than just humanitarian assistance. To deprive them of it would only render the situation in the region more more dangerous and unpredictable, he said.

"The door is open to Serbia," said Carl Bildt, special envoy of the UN Secretary General to the Balkans. "But Serbians must take the steps necessary to go through that door. The Serbian economy remains a mafia-nomenklatura economy. Even if we were to give them aid, normal Serbs would not benefit. We would only be strengthening the Milosevic regime."

Diplomats said the summit was a recognition that after ten years of dealing with wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and most recently, Kosovo, in a piecemeal fashion, bringing long-term stability to Europe's south-eastern corner requires a long-term, regional approach.

Otherwise, however, the results were mainly symbolic, designed to show that the West, Russia and other countries involved were sincere in their proclaimed desire to help the Balkans into the European mainstream. The final declaration of the summit promised to work towards the integration of Balkan states into the European mainstream in the hope that such a friendly embrace will give them the confidence to wean themselves from destructive wars, authoritarian politics, and non-functioning Communist economies.

Mr Blair announced that Britain was pledging pounds 110m in bilateral aid to the region, and another pounds 100m through the European Union. President Clinton offer an aid package of $700m but the gathering did not pretend even to embark on a detailed development package for the region.

Despite the high-flying rhetoric of the summit participants, Western diplomats admit that the meeting was little more than an expression of good intentions, and the beginning of long and difficult process in a region more accustomed to ethnic conflict and corruption than co-operation and openness.

Unlike previous Balkan summits, yesterday's meeting provided no concrete proposals for achieving its vaguely worded goals.

"The stability pact is still an empty shell," admitted one diplomat. "What is important is what we fill it with. This is a long-term process."

Other diplomats cautioned the international community that it would have to remain committed to the ideals outlined in the summit, and that good, workable ideas for solving the region's problems are more important than money.

"This summit is a good thing, but there are a lot of unanswered questions," said a Western diplomat based in Sarajevo.

"They have very good intentions, but there is still a real lack of ideas as to what to do next."

The summit has already raised expectations among Balkan states, particularly the so-called front line states of Bosnia, Macedonia, and Albania.

Macedonian and Albanian leaders did not mince words as they expressed their unrealistic expectations that international aid, and EU and Nato membership were just around the corner.

In newspaper articles published yesterday in Bulgaria and Romania, Mr Blair said he wanted both countries to become members of the European Union and of Nato: "Having won the war we have got to win the peace." But the Prime Minister, who was travelling to Kosovo after the summit to meet British troops, warned that candidates would would first have to meet stiff conditions.

Diplomats based in the region are at least encouraged that the international community is finally committed to a long-term role in the region.

"There may not be many concrete details yet, but psychologically this is very good for the people in places like Bosnia," said one Sarajevo- based diplomat. "They can be sure now that we are going to stick around, that we are going to be here to work with them for the long haul.

"Just knowing that America and the international community will continue to watch over them gives many the confidence to start rebuilding their societies, and trying to change things."