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2002 In Review: In The Western Balkans, A Year Of Little Change

  • Jolyon Naegele

The year 2002 brought relatively little change to the western Balkans, with a few marked exceptions, as RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 13 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The year 2002 did not end on an upbeat note in the western Balkans.

Serbia is on the verge of sending its president, Milan Milutinovic, to the Hague tribunal to stand trial alongside former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. And there is little chance that a successor will be elected soon.

Croatia continues to muddle through, Kosovo remains an international protectorate, and to a lesser extent so does Bosnia-Herzegovina. Montenegro, under intense EU pressure, is shedding its traditional pastime of smuggling in favor of a semblance of law and order. Macedonia, having defused tensions and begun to resolve its most severe social problems, finally appears ready to move forward.

More than a decade after the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, rump Yugoslavia is on the verge of its own demise. Within a few days, possibly as soon as 1 January, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will cease to exist, to be replaced by a loose confederation of its two remaining constituent republics, to be known simply as Serbia-Montenegro.

The new successor state to rump Yugoslavia is a shotgun marriage with EU security chief Javier Solana in the role of father of the bride. He has made six trips to Belgrade this year, including a key visit in March when he won over Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic to create the new looser common state.

Kostunica appeared relieved that a successor state had been agreed upon: "At a time when Europe is integrating and when the Balkans are threatened with disintegration, Serbia and Montenegro have moved along the road of integration and thereby are investing into the stability not only of the Balkans but also in stability and peace in Europe as well."

But Djukanovic, having built his political career on Montenegrin hopes of regaining its independence, was more circumspect about the deal: "This agreement in no way threatens the basic right of every state and every nation -- and that includes Serbia and Montenegro -- to review its position after a certain period and to ask its citizens about the future of the state."

Both republics suffer from high inflation and unemployment rates. Montenegro, which tries to project a more European political outlook, uses the euro as its currency. Serbia, in contrast, is still somewhat lost politically, still searching for its own identity while resisting responsibility for its acts of war and repression in much of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

Political apathy in Serbia remains high, with more than half of the electorate failing to participate in the second and third rounds of presidential voting in October and December, thereby denying Kostunica, the front-runner, the spoils of victory.

Montenegro has survived the past decade in large part by taking advantage of its geopolitical location to function as a key smuggling center. Recently the country's deputy chief prosecutor, Zoran Piperovic, was arrested and charged with human trafficking and involvement in organized prostitution. It was the first significant arrest of a senior official on corruption charges since the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina experienced little improvement during 2002. In Croatia, Prime Minister Ivica Racan's government remained weak and unwilling to institute serious economic reforms. Moreover, it has balked at handing over to the Hague tribunal the commander of Croatian forces during the 1991-95 war for independence, General Janko Bobetko. It has stuck to this position despite widespread criticism.

Zagreb University economics professor Slaven Letica, a leading political commentator, was among the academics calling on the Racan government to cooperate with the tribunal: "From the public's point of view, [the indictment] is unacceptable. But the justification for refusal is very weak, I would say, because international obligations [are] above the state or national constitutions. So I don't think the government has chosen the best approach to the issue."

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Britain's Paddy Ashdown took over from Austria's Wolfgang Petritsch in May as the international community's high representative and immediately focused on corruption. But Ashdown soon came under attack by domestic and foreign analysts for not doing enough to undermine the strength of the nationalist politicians who increased their power in the October general elections.

Nevertheless, Senad Pecanin, editor-in-chief of the Sarajevo daily "Dani," says the changeover from Petritsch to Ashdown was "very important for the continuation of reforms in Bosnia: "It seems that Mr. Petritsch became tired and he made some big mistakes in the third year or the third part of his mandate. Mr. Ashdown has brought new energy and new style in using his big, strong capacities as the high representative. He has shown from the beginning that he would not hesitate to use his power against the obstacles of the ruling nationalistic parties."

In contrast, Albania continued its dynamic development with housing and road construction moving at a pace unseen in other post-communist states in the region. Albania also gained a new president, Soviet-trained retired General Alfred Moisiu, and a new prime minister, Socialist Party eminence grise Fatos Nano.

Nano made a political comeback after engineering the fall of his own party's government, led by Ilir Meta. As in much of the region this year, the fight against corruption was the keyword in Nano's maiden speech in July when he became his country's third prime minister in less than a year: "The government will show no mercy in punishing corruption and the abuse of public funds."

In Kosovo, German diplomat Michael Steiner, who took over as the UN secretary-general's special representative, made an active effort to diffuse Serb-Albanian tensions and impose UN administration in the Serb-controlled northern part of the divided city of Mitrovica. Returns of Serb and Roma displaced persons to Kosovo remained well behind projections, as the security situation in the province remained hostile for returnees.

In a speech at Berlin's Humboldt University last month, Steiner said the UN Security Council should deal as soon as possible with Kosovo's future status and hand over central responsibility for the international protectorate to the EU, which in turn should see the status issue through to resolution. Steiner insisted there can be no return to the pre-1999 status of Kosovo as a province of Serbia, nor can there be a territorial division or "cantonalization" of Kosovo. Rather, he says Kosovo should be a sovereign country, closely bound to a European outlook, a multiethnic European society in which its minorities participate fully.

Just to the south, Macedonia, which was wracked by an Albanian insurgency last year, proceeded to implement the Ohrid framework peace agreement by changing laws and amending the constitution to grant greater civic and language rights to the country's minorities

In September, voters delivered a resounding defeat to the nationalist-oriented coalition government led by Ljubco Georgievski. Its popularity had shriveled because of allegations of widespread corruption.

The Social Democrats (SDSM) and a party consisting of former Albanian rebels and their commanders, the Democratic Party for Integration (BDI), swept into power.

Social Democratic leader and new Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski had this to say: "What we Macedonians have to understand -- whether we like it or not -- is that Macedonia is not a state just for the Macedonian people, with everyone else staying on as a necessary evil, facing a fate that must be accepted for better or worse. We have to understand and accept that Macedonia belongs to all of us equally, and that no one has an exclusive right of ownership over Macedonia."

Crvenkovski and his Albanian partners -- led by former insurgent commander Ali Ahmeti -- are seeking to restore public trust in government among Albanians as well as Macedonians, while overseeing a speedy clean-up of the security forces and customs service.

At the opposite end of the former Yugoslavia, Slovenia -- far more a part of Central Europe than the Balkans politically and economically -- was one of the seven states invited to join NATO at the Prague summit in November. Similarly, Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic slated to join the EU in 2004.

Voters this month elected a new president, Janez Drnovsek, previously prime minister, to replace the retiring head of state, Milan Kucan. Both are former Communist Party functionaries who showed strong pro-western tendencies in leading their republic to independence in 1991.