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Yugoslavia: Summit Sets Stage For Lasting Commitment To Balkans

Balkan and world leaders are about to arrive in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, for an unprecedented summit on reconstruction and development in southeastern Europe, in the wake of the Kosovo conflict. In this report, our RFE/RL correspondent explores the motivations for the summit, its hopes -- and its limitations.

Prague, 28 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Sarajevo, the war-scarred capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be returning to the world's media headlines in the next few days as the host city for the Balkan Reconstruction Summit.

This unprecedented gathering brings to Sarajevo many of the world's most powerful leaders. They include U.S. President Bill Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac, and the leaders of Japan and Canada. There will also be senior politicians from Balkan and southeast European states like Bulgaria and Romania, plus representatives of top financial institutions like the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Russia's Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin will be present as an observer.

The southeast European and Balkan leaders (from Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, and Slovenia) will hold a separate meeting tomorrow evening (approx. 1700, July 29), followed by a dinner. Then on Friday (July 30) the international leaders begin arriving in Sarajevo for a three-hour summit starting about midday. By late afternoon, the summit will be over, most of the leaders will climb back into their jets and fly away.

It's obvious that with a schedule as tight as that, the summit will be mainly ceremonial. Little substantive negotiations can take place in three hours, especially between politicians who have, in some cases, not even met before.

That doesn't mean the word "historic" is out of place in describing this event, however. It grows out of the desire of the NATO powers to follow through in practical ways on the moral reasons which they saw as the justification for the war against Serbia over Kosovo. Namely, to bring stability, prosperity and respect for democracy and human rights to this chronically unstable region.

For the first time, the attention of the most powerful countries and institutions in the world is focused on the Balkans, not with an eye to conquest and hegemony, but with a desire to help that fragile constellation of states out of their circle of deprivation.

Patrick Moore is RFE/RL's Balkan expert. Moore talks about the summit's goals:

"The main purpose of this summit is going to be to set the stage for what most Balkan government leaders hope will be a long-lasting and serious commitment in concrete terms by the international community to promoting Balkan development, in terms of political development, security, economics above all, and social development."

The summit, therefore, is about committing huge sums of money, investment, and guidance to a region sorely in need of help. In the first instance, there are the hundreds of millions of dollars needed for the physical and social reconstruction of Kosovo and for the continued stabilization of Bosnia. Followed by billions to help the broader region adapt and modernize its economies and institutions. The problems here are both short and long-term.

In the short term, economists say they expect the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Balkan region to decline by some 5 percent -- or $8 billion -- this year alone as a result of the Kosovo war. The disruptive effect of the conflict will be felt for years to come. That compounds the almost universal economic malaise that has characterized the region in the last decade in its haphazard efforts to establish market economies and democratic institutions. And that, in turn, comes atop a long legacy of backwardness.

The big problem with the summit is Yugoslavia, or rather its absence. The NATO powers are refusing to make reconstruction money available to Belgrade while President Slobodan Milosevic remains in office, and thus Yugoslavia was not invited to the table.

Serbian opposition leaders may well be present in Sarajevo during the summit, as probably will be senior figures from pro-western Montenegro, Serbia's reluctant partner in the Yugoslav Federation. But official Serbia -- until it undergoes a change of leadership -- remains an outcast. This presents a strategic and moral dilemma for the international reconstruction effort. As RFE/RL's Moore says: "No one has excluded Serbia in the long run, and everyone assumes that Serbia will be part of this process in the long run."

But no one knows in this case what the "long run" means. One year? 10 years? Milosevic appears firmly in control so far, despite the efforts of a divided domestic opposition. And Serbia without international help will slip deeper into poverty and frustration and remain a potential military threat to its neighbors.

Creating a prosperous and stable Balkans will eventually require the participation of Serbia. Time will be short at the summit, but that is a question which will remain hanging in the air long after the leaders have left Sarajevo.