Serbia barred from Balkan summit

THE LEADERS of nearly 40 countries gather in Sarajevo today for a meeting to promote stability in the Balkans, a test of the EU's ability to build order and prosperity in its own backyard after the Kosovo war.

The "stability pact" summit will be attended by President Bill Clinton, the Russian Prime Minister and the heads of all Balkan governments except Yugoslavia's and of a host of international agencies. But the most searching spotlight will be on the EU, which launched the pact in June and is co- chair of this week's meetings.

Yesterday, opening the first session, the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari, who played a key role in forcing peace terms on Slobodan Milosevic, declared that the Balkan countries must bury ancient hostilities and make a serious effort to become eligible for EU membership. In return the West was ready to offer money and political support, he said.

But specific funding proposals are one thing that will not be on the table today, once Mr Clinton, Tony Blair and the rest have arrived - amid blanket security precautions - for just one three-hour plenary meeting, likely to be dominated by symbolic gestures and lofty rhetoric, rather than by any notable deeds.

Its centrepiece - surely destined to enter history as the "Sarajevo Declaration" - is a six-page statement setting out a plan to build prosperity, peace and democracy in a region that for the past 10 years has seen little but war and deprivation.

But the document and the setting and make-up of the meeting are mainly symbolic. The pact itself, barely seven weeks after the end of the war, is meant as proof that the West is not reconsigning the Balkans to oblivion. Hence the decision to hold the meeting in the capital of Bosnia, where international peacekeepers still oversee rebuilding of a country shattered by the 1992-95 war.

The most pointed symbol will be the "empty chair" for Serbia, which is not invited to the meeting while it remains under its present management. Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro, the pro-Western junior partner in the Yugoslav federation, will attend. Sowill internal Serb opposition leaders. But Mr Milosevic will not.

If the British and others have their way, the declaration will contain a condemnation of the Yugoslav President, who is wanted for war crimes, as well as an explicit warning that Serbia will receive only humanitarian help, not reconstruction aid, as long as Mr Milosevic and his ilk remain in power.

The summit is fraught with potential pitfalls. Russia's attitude is unclear. Preparations have stretched Sarajevo's rudimentary infrastructure to the limit. To avoid disappointment, Western governments have downplayed expectations, insisting that, even though bodies such as the World Bank and the IMF are attending, the summit will not launch a Balkan "Marshall plan", despite estimates of the region's investment needs ranging as high as $30bn (pounds 19bn).

Analysts acknowledge that the exclusion of Serbia, the geographical hub and most populous component of the former Yugoslavia, will only hamper efforts to develop the region.

The point is not lost on Belgrade: "There can be no united south-eastern Europe without Yugoslavia," Mr Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party said last night, denouncing the summit as an anti-Serb plot.

It is not clear what the EU is prepared to offer, beyond a vague assurance of future membership. Croatia and Slovenia have warned they do not want to be lumped together with states such as the grindingly poor Albania, which the Slovenes fear would jeopardise their current negotiations to join the EU.

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