Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

West vacillates as the Balkans slip into chaos

How much chaos in the Balkans does it take for the Western world to sit up and take notice? Faced with a popular revolution in Serbia, deep political and economic crisis in Bulgaria and the collapse of a fraudulent, almost certainly criminal series of financial scams in Albania, the international community is doing plenty of hand-wringing but very little else.

Scratch senior diplomats for any hint of strategic thinking in a region that has already been through two disastrous wars in the past six years, and all you get is excuses or a rather sheepish admission of inadequacy.

"People have this idea that we're still in the era of Great Power diplomacy and that all we have to do is wave our hand to get what we want," said a European envoy in Belgrade.

"Well, it's not like that. While Milosevic seemed to be the unquestioned master, we tracked that situation and now he is in trouble we are tracking the new set of circumstances. There's not much more we can do."

Such an image of Western passivity seems disingenuous, especially in Serbia where President Slobodan Milosevic was, until very recently, enjoying the active interest of several Western European countries all too keen to offer him the foreign capital necessary to prop up his gangster- ridden economy and make some money for themselves into the bargain.

Now that Mr Milosevic has been caught red-handed over the attempted theft of last November's municipal elections, the international community has made unequivocal demands for him to reinstate the true results. But what will the world do if Mr Milosevic continues to fiddle and fudge? What kind of concerted action can foreign capitals come up with?

"Wait and see what happens," said one senior diplomat responsible for co-ordinating policy in the Balkans on behalf of the European Union. His answer was meant only half-seriously, but it neatly encapsulated a European foreign policy that is afraid to close any channels of communication with Mr Milosevic and stick its neck out any further than absolutely necessary.

There is no lack of action that could be taken. As the Belgrade political analyst, Boran Karadzole, remarked with no more than a touch of poetic licence: "Germany simply has to withold the supply of spare parts and Serbia would grind to a halt in a week."

It is clear that despite all the rhetoric about democratisation in the Balkans, political freedoms are actually rather low on the diplomatic shopping list. Averting another war remains the primary goal, (even if the question of how is a contentious one), followed closely by the economic interests of foreign companies seeking to explore new markets.

The embassy of one major European power in Tirana has, according to the country's foreign ministry, filed only two or three political reports on Albania in the past six months, concentrating its efforts instead on developing commercial contacts.

"I have learned as much about Albania from the media as I have from my own embassy," a senior official at the country's foreign ministry admitted.

The wave of instability racking the region is a clear illustration of the wrong-headed- ness of these priorities. "It is time the West understood that long-term stability is impossible without democratisation," said Gordana Logar, a senior diplomatic journalist in Belgrade., echoing widespread sentiment throughout former Yugoslavia and Albania.

The one country that has shown signs of accepting this lesson is the United States, which has made considerable progress in changing its policy in the region in the past year.

While the European Union has effectively turned a blind eye to electoral fraud in Albania, arguing patronisingly that allowances must be made for this most backward of European countries, Washington has refused to recognise the new parlia- ment, which is filled almost exclusively with members of the ruling Democratic Party, and called repeatedly for last May's general elections to be repeated.

The overall picture is of an international community that knows it does not want things to get worse but is afraid to take the action necessary to make them better.

"Better to send 4,000 election monitors now than 40,000 Nato troops later," was the sardonic advice of Gramoz Pashko, a prominent opposition figure, after Albania's rigged elections last May.