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Yugoslavia: Lack Of Credible Opposition Called 'Tragedy Of Serbia'

  • Frank Csongos



Washington, 25 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is trying to promote a viable democratic opposition in Serbia as an alternative to the current Belgrade regime. But the republic lacks opposition leaders with widespread popular support who could successfully challenge Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

This is the assessment of veteran U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke made Thursday at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. The panel is considering Holbrooke's nomination as ambassador to the United Nations.

Holbrooke, an architect of the Dayton peace accord that ended the war in Bosnia, called the absence of a cohesive and credible political opposition in Serbia tragic.

Holbrooke told the senators: "Where is the Cory Aquino (of the Philippines), where is the Aung San Suu Kyi (of Burma), where is the Dalai Lama (of Tibet), where is the Kim Dae Jung (of South Korea) figure who becomes the obvious rallying point for the forces of democracy? All of the people I just named, all of whom you and I have both worked with, were important leaders and symbols. There is no such clear figure at this point in Belgrade, and that is the tragedy of Serbia."

The U.S. diplomat said ultimately only the people of Serbia can make democracy a reality.

He said: "And outside assistance and laudatory language is important and useful, and we must encourage them. But as you (members of the U.S. Congress) have often said, the impetus must ultimately come from the Serb people themselves but with greater encouragement from us."

In its efforts to promote change in Belgrade, the United States and its allies have put pressure on the Milosevic regime.

U.S. President Bill Clinton has said Washington will not provide economic aid to reconstruct Serbia -- other than humanitarian assistance -- as long as Milosevic stays in power.

The U.S. also has frozen Milosevic's assets in the United States and backed his indictment by an international war crime tribunal. And on Thursday, the State Department announced a reward totaling up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest of indicted war crime suspects such as Milosevic, four of his top aides and other figures living in Bosnia and nearby.

State Department spokesman James Rubin said the money would go to those who provide information leading to the transfer of indicted war criminals to the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague.

Daniel Serwer of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a non-government think tank based in Washington, said the United States must set its primary goal of promoting democratic forces in Yugoslavia, which consists of Serbia and Montenegro.

Serwer, a senior fellow at the institute and an expert on the Balkans, said Thursday in an interview with RFE/RL that Washington should spend about $100 million annually to promote democracy in Yugoslavia, including in Serbia proper, Kosovo and Montenegro.

Serwer said: "Serbia without Milosevic will still be a peril to the entire region and hold back the entire region economically and politically" unless democratic forces succeed in taking political power.

He said the U.S. and its allies are fundamentally right that no economic aid should go to Yugoslav or Serb government entities. But he said there are some gray areas in terms of reconstruction of water and electricity facilities, infrastructure seriously damaged by the NATO bombing campaign.

Serwer said the next step should be the immediate capture of war crimes suspects.

The institute recently convened a Balkans working group to discuss the future of Serbia.

In a working paper entitled "Moving Serbia Toward Democracy," the institute's Balkan experts said they expect that a total isolation of Serbia to be counterproductive to Western interests.

"The Milosevic regime will use isolation by the West as an excuse to continue repressive emergency measures," the paper said, "to limit the flow of information and to encourage extreme nationalism."

It said that Serbia faces disastrous economic conditions -- $4 billion in war damages and a 40 percent loss of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on top of previous sharp GDP declines.

Furthermore, the paper said, accusations of collective guilt against the Serbian people must be avoided. It said responsibility for the Kosovo atrocities belongs to the Milosevic regime. However, it said pro-democracy Serbs must acknowledge the atrocities committed in Kosovo by Yugoslav security, army and paramilitary forces and should support the U.N. Security Council peace agreement on Kosovo.

The institute's Balkans Working Group discussed these possible options:

-Initiate a quiet dialog with members of the Yugoslav Army who are prepared to challenge the regime. Serwer said it is not clear, however, there are such officers.

-Renew and increase support for democratically oriented non-governmental organizations in Yugoslavia and encourage the building of democratic institutions.

-Deliver humanitarian assistance through these organizations and opposition-run municipalities.

-Reconstruct infrastructure for humanitarian purposes such as water supplies and possibly electricity.

-Exempt from economic sanctions small investments in the private sector.

-Increase support for and transmission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's South Slavic service and Voice of America's Serbian service to provide alternative sources of information.

-Renew and increase support for independent media within Yugoslavia.

-Lift some European travel restrictions that apply to Yugoslav citizens.

-Offer Yugoslav membership in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) if the Yugoslav government holds new elections supervised by the OSCE.

The State Department's Rubin said the U.S. has long supported the goal of a democratic Yugoslavia and is in contact with Serbian democratic opposition figures. He said Washington does not support any particular individual but, rather, the goal of a democratic government in Belgrade.

In his testimony Thursday, Holbrooke recalled his dramatic last meeting with Milosevic in which he warned him of imminent NATO bombing unless Belgrade accepted the alliance's demands on Kosovo.

Holbrooke said the last time he saw Milosevic, in Belgrade on March 23, he told him that the bombing of Yugoslavia will be swift, severe and sustained.

Holbrooke recalled Milosevic's reply: "I understand this. You will bomb us. There is nothing I can do to prevent it."

As the American envoy left the room, Milosevic turned to him and said: "I wonder if we will ever see each other again." And Holbrooke said he replied, "That will depend entirely on your actions."

Milosevic did not change his mind and NATO soon thereafter began a nearly three-month-long air campaign. It eventually led to the ouster of Serb troops from Kosovo and the stationing of international peacekeepers there.

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