Leading Article: A carrot for the Serbs

TONY BLAIR was in Kosovo yesterday, glorying in the possibilities of the photo-opportunity. He only just achieved one. Thanks to the secrecy imposed by his security advisers, the grateful Albanians initially failed to turn out for the cameras. The garlands materialised only after the frantic efforts of his PR people to whip-in the cheering locals. In a way this was appropriate. Mr Blair was fresh from the conference in Sarajevo on Friday, which delivered the predictable cluster of soundbites about the new peace and stability in the Balkans. In reality, for all the fine words, we should accept that the prospects for peace and stability are almost as distant as ever.

A prosperous Balkans is unthinkable without a prosperous Serbia at its heart. Yet Serbia was not even on the guest list at the Balkans summit. Belgrade was furious at being left out, though the exclusion of Slobodan Milosevic was inevitable. To have invited him would have sent out a most peculiar signal which few in the region would have understood. He has personally been responsible for so much destabilisation that none of the other leaders around the table would have welcomed - or even tolerated - his glowering presence there.

Yet the key question remains: how can Serbia be encouraged to stumble towards some kind of normality? The prospects do not look good. The received wisdom is that we should withhold all redevelopment cash for as long as Milosevic is in power. But to cut all of Serbia off from any kind of economic aid can only be counter-productive. People there must be encouraged to believe that there are economic advantages in supporting the opposition. It ought to be possible, for instance, to give money to those cities and municipalities where the opposition holds control. We have put away the stick for now; it is time to get out the carrot. The alternative is that we allow the economy to slide downwards in a deepening spiral of misery, in the hope that there will be an angry revolution by the impoverished, in which Milosevic will be overthrown. This has been our policy in Iraq, and we are still waiting. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of children have died for want of medicine, while Saddam Hussein seems as secure in power as ever. Is this what we want in Serbia: a newly defiant solidarity with the besieged leadership, such as we saw during the ill-advised Nato bombing campaign?

Certainly, Mr Blair has little to boast of today in terms of his Balkan achievements. Kosovo is a burnt-out wasteland, unrecognisable from what it was before the bombing started. Serbia is full of unclear resentments, much closer to the pre-Hitler Weimar republic than to eastern Europe during the (mostly) velvet revolutions of 1989. The bitterness runs so deep that even if Milosevic is overthrown, it is unlikely that anybody whom we would recognise as a democratic leader would step into his shoes. The leaders the West is most fond of - Zoran Djindjic, for example, of the Democratic Party - are those who have the least popular support. Not that anyone is popular in the usual sense: in the inverted politics of the region, one of the least unpopular politicians in Serbia is Vojislav Seselj, the far-right nationalist who makes Milosevic look like a moderate. Mr Blair would do well to remember what emerged in pre-war Germany, when the punitive attitude of the international community helped provoke the Weimar chaos.

There are few causes for optimism. Gone is the shaky unity of the allies during the air war. In its place old fractiousness is re-emerging: the aid donors are returning to the habit of attaching strings to promote national interests. US aid can be spent only on US goods. And the Americans are not the only ones up to such old tricks. But, above all, the politicians presiding over the ruined Balkans need to be able to break free of the pathological desire to shine on television screens at home.

The mess is partly of the West's creating, and it should be cleared up without any attempt to claim glamorous credit. It was bad enough that Downing Street should seek to impose its spin-doctors on Nato in Brussels, in an attempt to create order where there was none before. It will be worse still if Mr Blair and his colleagues seek to grandstand before the world when so much damage has been done, and solutions are so fearfully few and far between.