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Serbia And Montenegro

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Joan Ryan.]

9.30 am

It is a great privilege to raise this issue. The debate is timely in many respects, although it is overshadowed by another conflict that will be looming imminently. NATO started bombing Yugoslavia four years ago. Sadly, the debate is also timely because the Prime Minister of Serbia, Mr. Djindjic, was assassinated last week, an action that I am sure all hon. Members regard as a retrograde step for the country, as well as a personal tragedy.

I am pleased to introduce the debate, given that the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and I recently went on a private visit to Serbia. I also visited Montenegro briefly. I want to return to those events of four years ago. Although we must discuss the current position in the country now known as Serbia and Montenegro, which, until a few weeks ago, was known as Yugoslavia, we should bear in mind some lessons for not only that country but the current conflict. Perhaps we should have been warned, when it was decided that military action could be embarked on without the sanctions of the United Nations and a resolution, that that might set a precedent for further events. Tragically, that precedent has been used and we are in the position that we are in today.

It is sad that many people who are now vociferously opposing military action against Iraq were silent at the time of the problems in Yugoslavia. It is strange that some parties that were among the most hawkish of parties advocating bombing Yugoslavia are now the most dovelike. I have great problems concerning the current action against Iraq, but even I can say that there is much more of a case to answer in respect of Iraq than there ever was against Serbia four years ago.

There will be a small gathering of people in Whitehall on Sunday to note the passing of another year since that bombing, and to remember when once again this country, with its NATO allies, attacked a sovereign country that had not threatened us or British interests. Although the importance of history in the Balkans is vital, I shall not dwell too much on its past history. Suffice it to say that Serbia and Montenegro is a linchpin in the future of the Balkan region. The need for it to be a stable and democratic country, playing a major part in the European community—with a small 'c'—and among European countries generally, is indisputable.

When, on 5 October a few years ago, Milosevic was ousted from power, we all rejoiced. Some people claimed credit for that, although perhaps they should not have done, as it was the result of a popular movement and was made possible by the people, not outside powers. As always happens in such cases, the hopes of the country were riding high. It had been told by western powers that the removal of Milosevic would lead to democracy, freedom and, above all, prosperity for the country. Sadly, it was quickly let down, and by those very powers that had demanded Milosevic's removal.

Advances have been made, although the assassination of Mr. Djindjic has set things back greatly. Unfortunately, although law and order is present, there is a great deal of underworld activity, and the black market rules. I am not sure that the laws of the country are always put into practice as we would expect and hope them to be. We found on our visit that Mr. Djindjic was not, by any means, the most popular of politicians. There was a certain democratic deficit in his being in power. The main reason why many in Serbia feel let down is that they gave a lot, in terms of trying to agree to all the conditions imposed on them, and yet it seems that they cannot advance. Worse still, when they fulfilled the majority of those conditions, new ones were imposed.

In my opinion, the country is at a difficult stage. Our attention is naturally focused on the middle east, but we should ensure that we keep a close eye on developments in the Balkans, because others may decide that the time to move is when our attention is drawn away. The country has a huge economic problem, and unemployment is tragically high. One of the problems that we saw at first hand—in my case for the first time—and that moved me greatly was that of refugees and internally displaced persons, whom we visited. The difference between the two categories is that although all are from the former Yugoslavia, some of those people had fled from Croatia or Bosnia, which are independent countries, and so are refugees. The internally displaced people are those from Kosovo, and are mainly Serbs, but also include Roma and other ethnic minorities.

That visit moved me because I saw the forgotten story and the forgotten people of Europe. More than 750,000 people, by conservative estimates, have been placed in that country, which is itself struggling with its economy. Those people stay in conditions that would, if we saw them on our television screens, perhaps move us to act more. The Government have a great problem: some of the Kosovan people that we saw in Kraljevo, which is not far from the demarcation between Serbia and Kosovo, want to return. Nevertheless, Kosovo is, by international recognition, a part of Serbia and Montenegro. If the Government try to settle those people, which would be the humanitarian thing to do, notwithstanding the fact that they need assistance, that would give the lie to the fact that they would never return to Kosovo and it would mean that they would be giving up Kosovo as part of their territory. They are caught in a difficult position.

The trouble is that those conditions will cause unrest and I fear that, in the current political situation, that might become more than unrest. As we know, sadly, the people in those areas have always had great pride in their country. That pride has spilled over into unacceptable nationalism, but it is also part of their make-up and it does not mean that everyone is a rabid nationalist. To such people, Kosovo is at the heart of Serbia and it would be impossible for them ever to think of giving up that territory. There is trouble ahead.

Kosovo itself is not quite the picture about which we would like to be told. In debates about current military action, the action against Yugoslavia is hailed as one of the great successes. I want to know why—perhaps the Minister, who previously had a job in the Home Office, can tell me—there are so many Kosovan Albanians who come to my surgery, having had their asylum claims rejected, and who do not want to go back to Kosovo. They would rather go to Albania, because Kosovo is such a hell-hole. Perhaps those people were Albanian, not Kosovan. It seems strange that a country, or an area, that we claim is sorted out is, in fact, far from it.

The Minister for Europe apologised beforehand for not attending the debate—he has other duties, in Brussels. During Foreign Office questions, his answer to my question on the refugees indicated that perhaps he did not have his finger on exactly what was going on inside the region. Even the current country of Serbia-Montegro is something that was by and large suggested to that country by others outside. That leads me to a plea to our Government and all western Governments. We should stop treating some of these countries like 19th century central Asian sultanates, over which the great powers argue, trying to vie with each other for influence. The countries concerned are in Europe and the people and politicians are getting a little bit fed up with being told what to do.

Conditions follow conditions. We need to encourage the process of democracy—and there is democracy in Serbia. After all, Milosevic was ousted because he called an election, lost it and would not accept the result. He thought that he could win that election. To encourage the process, we must look to our laurels to see what we can do to help.

Serbo-Croat may sound strangely amusing to hon. Members. It used to crop up in comedy programmes as an obscure subject to study. Many hon. Members will know that I studied it at university. Perhaps I rather enjoy doing obscure things, which is why I became a Conservative Whip. I chose to study Serbo-Croat because, 20 or 30 years ago, although Yugoslavia was ruled by a dictator—who was not pleasant, but not in the premier league in the present scheme of things—it was at the forefront of trying to develop western influences. It was a nice place to be. That is why it is so sad that Yugoslavia has not had the same opportunity to move forward as the rest of Europe.

I return to the things that can be done. We should be doing more to encourage trading links. Unfortunately, the assassination of Mr. Djindjic has once again created an image of Serbia as a place where gangsters rule and bodyguards are everywhere. That is sad because it is not entirely true. There are many opportunities for British firms to invest, especially in Montenegro. Many people, including many hon. Members, will have enjoyed pleasant holidays on the Adriatic coast in earlier years. The coast in Montenegro is one of the most beautiful in the world. As a result of sanctions and isolation, the coast is largely unspoilt and there are many opportunities for tourism. I hope that, with encouragement from Government Departments, British companies will look seriously for those opportunities.

The one thing that will really improve relations between our countries and change the popular image that many people have of Serbia is for people to visit the country.

During our visit, the hon. Gentleman—I shall, if I may, refer to him as my hon. Friend—and I visited a camp in the most beautiful little town in the midst of a wonderful sculpture park. The arts are still thriving in Serbia. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Serbs have much culture and art to offer that is being overlooked?

I do of course agree with the hon. Lady, whom I shall refer to as my hon. Friend. Serbia has a great deal to offer, including many skills. My hon. Friend may wish to expand on the fact that we also visited spas where we saw the great skills of Yugoslavian and Serbian doctors and nurses, especially in physiotherapy. We are lamentably short of such skills in this country. Imaginative work by representatives of the national health service, or, dare I say it, private medicine might achieve a useful exercise in helping to improve facilities there while helping us to reduce our waiting lists.

As my hon. Friend said, we should look at other cultural links, ranging from highbrow arts to things that my children know more about than me, such as pop music—although I think we are supposed to call it rock music nowadays. I have been moaning on for a bit, but I wish to pay tribute to the British Council. It has been working hard in Belgrade and Podgorica. It has an imaginative scheme that can be applied not only in Serbia and Montenegro but throughout the world. It is called Dreams and Teams, and it encourages young people to acquire leadership skills and other attributes through sport. There is a good link-up between the British Council and the Red Star Belgrade football team.

I could continue talking and bore for the party on this subject, but other hon. Members are present and we want to have a discussion about the matter as we rarely get an opportunity to do so. It is time for us to think seriously about how we can encourage the region— which includes not only Serbia and Montenegro but Macedonia as it is different but has similar problems. We have ignored the situation in the region. I understand some of the points that the Minister will undoubtedly make, but we must give encouragement to the region too. We have given it the stick for too long—although it might be a verbal stick on this occasion, in contrast to what happened four years ago. It is time to get the carrots out. We must do something positive to help the region, not as victors but as friends—which is what we have always been.

9.52 am

I want to start by expressing my sympathies to the family and colleagues of the murdered Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic. His assassination was an appalling act that will do nothing to advance the cause of the people of Yugoslavia.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) said, he and I recently visited Serbia. We went there as officers of the all-party group on Serbia and Montenegro—I think that that is what we now must call the area—to see for ourselves the problems that the country is facing and to talk to as many people as possible about them. In September 2002, I also visited Kosovo for the fifth time with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

During our visit in February, we met representatives of all the major parties. We did not meet the Prime Minister as he was abroad, but we met his No. 2. We also met people from non-governmental organisations, Government officials and trade unionists. I wish to put on the record my thanks to our fellow parliamentarians, led by Liliana Colic, who showed us wonderful hospitality and worked very hard to ensure that our visit was fruitful.

We arrived shortly after the change was made to the constitution that replaced the name Yugoslavia with the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro. There was huge resentment across the board about that. Speaker after speaker told us that it was a temporary arrangement and that it had been invented by the United States and the EU to delay the secession of Montenegro. The west has interfered in and bombed Yugoslavia but it has not yet made up its mind about what to do to finish off the country: it is currently more occupied with bombing yet another part of the world. What I found most shocking about that major constitutional change was the fact that there was no referendum; the people were not asked about it. I think that most people feel deep bitterness about that.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a chance that there was no referendum because they knew what the result would be?

That is more than likely. All parties have a deep attachment to the name of Yugoslavia.

The dangers of further destabilisation in Yugoslavia are plain for all to see. The west does not want the secession of Montenegro because Kosovo would follow. Kosovo would, in my view, be swallowed up into a greater Albania if it became independent. That would have destabilising effects in Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians are seeking to redraw maps. The Greeks are understandably very nervous about that.

Last year, I visited Montenegro with a friend on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham). We talked with an Albanian MP who supported the bid to separate Montenegro from Yugoslavia. When I said, "Well, being a Montenegrin is okay, but this is a balkanisation process in which you might be better off sticking with a big country," he said that he did not want to be a Montenegrin; he would be an Albanian always. He made no bones about the fact that a greater Albania was his dream. We have to be very careful about what is going on in Montenegro. The west cannot simply walk away from the issue, as it appears to be doing.

In the present crisis, we are being told over and over what a success story Kosovo is, and that the liberation of Kosovo was worth it. Hon. Members in this Room have different opinions, and I will not go into the history, because we have different views on that. However, I must say that Kosovo is not, at the moment, a success story. It is under the protection of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, which has some 30,000 or 40,000 troops and so many aid agencies that one almost trips over them. In fact, they seem to provide the only employment in Kosovo now.

Kosovo has become an almost mono-ethnic state. We visited the tiny enclaves. We went to Mitrovica in September and talked to people, and to the army. It is always interesting to do that, because one always gets the truth from servicemen and women; they do not have a political axe to grind. In spite of all the real efforts—some really good people are working there; I would not like to dismiss them—the Government of Ibrahim Rogova is not really able to rule because the Kosovo Liberation Army is still in charge. It is, in effect, a mafia-run state. People staying in the Grand hotel, Pristina could pay only in cash—in dollars or marks. I have met Mr. Rogova a number of times and admire him greatly; I wish that there were far more people like him in that part of the world. However, the truth is that he is powerless. Some of his colleagues have been killed by the mafia, and the mafia state carries on.

Even with all the troops in Kosovo, some 1,300 Serbs, Roma, Ashkali and people from other minorities are still missing. More than 1,000 have been killed since NATO liberated Kosovo. Nearly 300,000 have been subject—permanently, it seems to me—to ethnic cleansing. That, our Prime Minister tells us day after day, is a success story. God help us if that pattern should be repeated in Iraq.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and I visited the camps, many of which I had visited before. I do not think that I have ever felt more depressed than when we visited the Kosovo refugees. They are about 50 miles from home. It is ironic that one camp that we visited is in a beautiful setting; I mentioned the sculpture park and the mountain in the background. It is a lovely place, but the conditions are a disgrace, and it is a disgrace that we can allow them in the middle of Europe. The people there want to go home. They are mainly not sophisticated people from Sarajevo or Croatia but rural people who have, for centuries, farmed in Kosovo. That is where their cultural background and churches are. I have been to camps all over the world and it was one of the saddest visits that I have made. Eyes look up hopefully when people visit. Children are born in those camps. The real disgrace was the attitude of UNMIK to the returnees—less than 1 per cent. have returned.

We talked to politicians in Belgrade and to the head of the returnee programme. The high representative, Michael Steiner, refuses to implement plans to take 50 or 100 people back to their empty villages and to protect them there. The policy seems to be—I hope that the Minister will take this on board—that if one or two people want to return and their Albanian neighbours do not mind, they may go back. In effect, the Albanian neighbours have a veto. We supposedly went to war to stop ethnic cleansing, but we have presided over the biggest permanent ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, which is an absolute disgrace.

A 75-year-old lady in Mitrovica, Vero Stalantovic, had to go into hospital. While she was away, some Albanians looted her home and the final straw was that they took everything, so she is unable to return home. If 40,000 troops cannot protect one elderly lady in Kosovo, that is a symptom of terrible failure.

We talked at great length to politicians about the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague and we talked to people who had helped to depose Milosevic. They were not Milosevic lovers, but belonged to the assassinated Prime Minister's party. Our host, Liliana Colic, was a member and had spent years opposing Milosevic. Everyone expressed their dismay at Carla del Ponte's attitude to Serbs and her lack of interest in going after other world criminals from other ethnic groups. They all said that they were fed up with the threatened withdrawal of aid if they did not deliver this or that war criminal. One exasperated Minister said, "If I knew where the war criminal was, I would personally go and get him, but I do not know and we might lose $100,000 in aid by the end of March if we do not deliver." That attitude is breeding bitterness and we shall reap the whirlwind.

Unemployment, as my hon. Friend said, is appalling. Organised crime in Kosovo and links with terrorist organisations are all very frightening.

Reconstruction in Yugoslavia has been a dismal failure. The bridges across the Danube have still not been rebuilt. There is some reconstruction, but it is very little and not enough. My firm belief is that a truth and reconciliation commission should have been set up on the Balkans. That was hugely successful in South Africa. As my hon. Friend said, politicians from some European countries act like victors storming in and laying down conditions. We are creating an undercurrent of bitterness, such as that in Germany during the 1930s because of reparations, and a feeling of injustice. We are pushing people into extremist camps.

I agree with my hon. Friend about trading links because it is vital to reintroduce them. We were impressed by the spas—it seemed that there was a physiotherapist for every patient—and by the continuing high level of training for health service workers. Were I to suffer from, for example, a stroke, I hope that the national health service would send me there. I imagine that I would recover well at one of those spas.

Culturally, we have much in common with Yugoslavia. Cultural exchanges and sports competitions have taken place, and we share a sense of humour with its people. I hope that people start holding out the hand of friendship and that they stop the bullying and stop strutting the European stage as victors, because that is helping no one and is destabilising Yugoslavia still further.

10.5 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing the debate and on his very informed contribution. He probably knows more about the region than almost anyone in the House of Commons. I have had many interesting conversations with him about the Balkans, which is an area that I dealt with when I worked for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

As a preamble, I wish to say that for many years the west's foreign policy in the region left a great deal to be desired, contrary to the rewriting of history in which the Foreign Office Ministers of successive Governments have engaged. The United Kingdom and the west should have intervened very early at the time of the break-up of Yugoslavia. Western policy in the last days of Margaret Thatcher was to prop up the then Yugoslavia because its collapse would signal the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Margaret Thatcher's policy was to hang on to Gorbachev at any cost. As Kissinger later said, it is always a great mistake to try to build foreign policy around the retention of a single individual. So it proved, because both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union fell shortly afterwards.

The right policy in that instance was that of the Germans, who said that it was vital that Yugoslavia be allowed to collapse and that we were prepared to respect the integrity of those parts of Yugoslavia that were trying to pull away from Serbia, particularly Slovenia and Croatia. It was absolutely clear very early on, after the assaults by Serbia on Vukovar in eastern Krajina, that the retention of an integrated Yugoslavia was unsustainable, but the west did nothing. That was a grave policy error. Early intervention might have avoided much of the terrible suffering that has since been experienced in the Balkans.

We failed to intervene early enough in Bosnia. We eventually arrived at a better policy, but we were very late. As a result of those two failures, we drew the wrong conclusions about what was happening in Kosovo. We decided to get in early because we had failed to intervene early enough in the two earlier cases. We made a great mistake by intervening in Kosovo. I do not agree with the prevailing human rights-dominated view that we did some moral service to the region. Instead, we inflamed the suffering in Kosovo.

A large part of the policy on Kosovo was driven by an early form of regime change pursued by Madeleine Albright. Rubin, her adviser, said that at a meeting she banged on the table and asked whether she had made it clear enough that her No. 1 priority was that Milosevic had to go before she left her job. That was how foreign policy was conducted in the United States at that time.

I supported the Afghanistan invasion. It was absolutely right to go in and break up al-Qaeda. However, the issue of what was to be done afterwards was the same. The Prime Minister said that we must not walk away from Afghanistan, but we have. There are only 300 troops in Kabul. Most of the rest of Afghanistan is controlled by warlords who are scarcely better than the Taliban, which we ousted. Of course it was right to intervene. We had to, because there were terrorist cells there that had to be broken up, but we have not cut a very good figure in the reconstruction effort.

That brings me to the question of how to reconstruct Serbia. At the absolute heart of that reconstruction must be an attempt to win over ordinary, middle-of-the-road Serbian opinion. Without that, we will not manage the reconstruction effort. Anything that we do will be a failure. Although we like to try to minimise this and Ministers, if I may say so, have on occasion seemed to imply that it was some sort of liberation, the people of Serbia, especially Belgrade, were shocked that the west engaged in a series of bombing attacks on them. They do not see that as an attack on Milosevic, as we said in public, but an attack on them, their values and their way of life.

The hon. Gentleman will know that I visited Yugoslavia during the bombing. One small town, Cuprija, which was bombed by mistake—fortunately, only one person was killed—was almost totally opposed to Milosevic. It had an Opposition mayor, and every person that I met said, "He got a handful of votes here. Why are you bombing us?" That was the message from that town.

That point makes in microcosm the point that I am making in general. The hon. Lady speaks with the benefit of having been to the region recently and had such discussions.

We are now engaged in another form of alienation: the persistent attempt to impose heavy conditionality on the provision of development assistance. That will only breed a sense of mistrust between the Serbian population and the west. In particular, the linkage of development assistance to the extradition of alleged war criminals to The Hague is sending completely the wrong signal to the wider population. It looks to them almost like a form of imperialism, and the imposition by force—or by a very muscular diplomacy—of a western way of doing things. The west gets its conscience-salving display of defendants for trial, but the people of Serbia get the message that they are being pushed around by the west in general and by Washington in particular.

We need to take a much longer, broader view of our relationship with Serbia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his position? I am not entirely sure what it is. Is he suggesting that the alleged war criminals should not be returned, or is the issue that concerns him the link between aid and their return? Does he feel that they should be returned but that aid should not be linked to that? In that case, how would he propose to provide encouragement? It would be very difficult then to return some of those war criminals, who have, in certain ways, some popular support.

There are a number of alleged terrorists in Britain at the moment, one of whom, in particular, the French want to interview. We are refusing to send him over because we are concerned about the treatment that he may receive and we are not convinced that the evidence is strong enough to require his extradition to France. We are doing that because we think that our judicial system is robust enough to form such judgments. However, we are now saying to Serbia—a new democracy, proud of its new institutions—that it is not capable of dealing with such issues itself. The truth is that the overwhelming majority of the Serbian population want to bring those people to trial and see the issues resolved. They want to do that, however, in their own way and in their own time, using their own institutions. That must be the best way to strengthen those institutions in the medium term. We are making a crass mistake by trying to impose on those people our western values and our rather narrow idea of exactly how that judicial process should take place.

My answer to the Minister is: take a broader view. Do not rely on that very narrow reciprocity to try to achieve what we all eventually want to see—those who have perpetrated terrible offences brought to trial. The first thing that we need to do is to win over the Serbian population, but there are two or three other things that we need to have in mind. We need to bear in mind the symbolic importance of membership of the EU to the Serbian leadership. Whatever the costs and benefits of the EU to Britain, they pale into insignificance compared with the benefits to the fledgling democracies of eastern Europe, for whom membership of the EU is the hallmark of re-entry into the family of western nations. We should be holding out a much more direct pathway to EU membership to Serbia. That is also true of Croatia. If anything, we should be trying to create some sort of competition and a sense of encouragement that the door is open and that both countries may achieve membership of the EU.

Another crucial factor is that we must give Serbia the impression that it can start to play a role in assisting with the stability of the whole region. Far from being a problem, a new democracy can be part of the solution. We have not done remotely enough about that. I have heard scarcely a word about the long-term prospects of Serbia becoming integrated or greater co-operation with the western alliance.

Finally, we also need to take a much broader and longer view of reconstruction. We need to grasp that the early stages of reconstruction are by far the most difficult. The creation of a set of institutions in a country that—although it has a highly educated and sophisticated middle class—has been in the hands of a narrow group of thugs and criminal gangs for some years, needs an enormous kick-start of assistance. If we can provide that assistance early on, even if it is costly in the early years, we will find that it is amply repaid down the line. I am talking about basic things such as assistance with the consolidation of property rights, cleaning up the banking system and giving whatever support is required to ensure that the judicial system operates adequately and that the faith and trust of the population is restored. That last point is closely linked to the one that I made a moment ago about war criminals. Such basic building blocks of development will be crucial in the weeks and months ahead.

In the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the mid-1990s, the west decided to channel huge amounts of extra aid to the region, first through the International Monetary Fund and then through other western institutions. Even though the amounts coming in were still relative pinpricks because of the size of the Soviet Union, at least we realised the need to go down that road. In the case of Serbia, even though the amounts of money involved are comparatively small, we have not gone down that road. We are not moving up a gear to the much higher levels of aid that are required in the early years to give Serbia the stability that it needs to develop quickly, as several other east European countries did immediately after the collapse of communism.

I do not know what will happen in Serbia in the weeks and months ahead, but I do know that the west can have a real influence. The decisions that we take will be absolutely crucial to the direction that Serbia takes, which is why I am participating in this debate and why I am so pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge managed to secure it. I plead with the Minister to give careful and serious consideration to putting Serbia and the stabilisation of this part of the Balkans much higher on the Government's agenda. Achieving stability is crucial to the west's interests and our interests.

10.19 am

There are one or two points on which I profoundly disagree with the previous three speakers, but I support the general tone of what they said.

I say to the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) that the demand that indictees be sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague must be fulfilled. The demand is of long standing and is correct under all known interpretations of international law. It is right and proper that Belgrade and other countries in the region should honour their obligations.

The hon. Gentleman's assertion on the renationalisation of the judicial process would make more sense if the renationalisation process had begun in all countries in the region to deal with those charged with crimes of a standard below that required to take them to The Hague, but that has not been the case. Every country in the region has lessons to learn in order to conform to the standards that we expect. Those standards are not, as the hon. Gentleman said, "our western values"; they are the values to which Serbia and Montenegro aspires as part of the European family. I profoundly believe that Serbia and Montenegro is part of our European family, and we should make that clear.

I also disagree with the hon. Gentleman's view on the need for military action in Kosovo. Given the humanitarian situation, we had little alternative but to act. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that since then the way in which Britain and the international community have not got a grip on the Balkans has been a bad exemplar for other parts of the world where reconstruction is a necessary process after conflict. More important, the Balkans is still a difficult area in our European home and things can still go badly wrong if we do not begin to put in the effort to rebuild its shattered communities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) made the point that there cannot be further balkanisation of the Balkans. We have a problem with Kosovo, which was put in the too-hard-to-handle box four years ago—it is still in that box and there has been little progress. I agree with the comments made by other hon. Members that the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo shames us all; it should rest on the consciences of those, like me, who played an active role during the military conflict in Kosovo.

I want to join the previous three speakers in saying to my hon. Friend the Minister that we must carefully examine where we are today. In the context of Serbia and Montenegro, we are in a position of uncertainty because of the brutal assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic. Along with other Members, I should like to place it on record that the assassination was, by any standards, an outrage. I first met Zoran Djindjic when he was an Opposition politician. At the time, he was acting bravely and putting his liberty, and maybe his life, at risk. That was no mean feat against the powerful Milosevic regime in Belgrade. As many commentators have pointed out, Zoran Djindjic was not flawless. Nevertheless, he was trying to take his country into a position in which it would be better able to deal with the United Kingdom, the rest of Europe, the international community and, indeed, Belgrade. His death is not only a personal tragedy but a tragedy for Serbia and Montenegro.

Recently, I met Mr. Dragoljub Micunovic, the Speaker of the Parliament of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, who led the delegation to the Council of Europe, which Serbia and Montenegro is actively trying to join. His feeling that the standards demanded of Serbia and Montenegro change and that there is not a consistent road map came up in that conversation. Those issues come up time and again in conversation with people from Serbia and Montenegro. There is no clear indication of what Serbia and Montenegro has to achieve in order to make progress—to access the carrots, if you like. There is a feeling that too often the sticks are easily available and visible, but the carrots are more difficult to access. I say to the Minister that we need to pay serious attention to what that means.

We are blind if we do not recognise that there has been real progress in Serbia and Montenegro. Equally, Serbia and Montenegro is blind if it does not recognise that there is an expectation of more progress in the reform of its institutions, and various aspects of its relationship with the international community and its own population. If we do not address some of the basic problems, we confine the region—not just one country—to much slower progress or the possibility of regress. I acknowledge the pleas from other hon. Members for recognition of economic factors.

My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax made the fair point that the reconstruction of the shattered infrastructure that was the result of military conflict has not moved forward at any great pace. The Danube still operates, as it did historically, as a barrier in the region, not as part of the main infrastructure. We need to pay attention to that, and to trade. A country that has so many unemployed and so many thrust into poverty, which is unusual and way below the expectations of Serbia and Montenegro, will experience political instability and will potentially suffer a reversion into the narrow nationalism that cost the country so dearly over the years.

My appeal to the Government is for us to look again long and hard at what we do put on offer. Council of Europe membership is a small thing for this country, but would send a strong signal to Serbia and Montenegro that people believe it to be part of a European home. It is making progress on the journey to that common European destiny. It is important that we put out a hand and say that we want Serbia and Montenegro to look outwards. That is a step forward, and we should be clear about the conditions that we expect to be fulfilled.

People in Belgrade say that they have met the criteria that were part of the original demands. To make progress on that would be a strong signal. To explain what Belgrade must do to make further progress is vital, so that there is clarity in the relationship above and beyond everything else. It would be valuable if the Minister could take that message back to his colleagues, and our country could pursue that process with our American partners as part of our ambitions in the EU—if we are still talking to people in the EU at this stage.

We can take the view—as most of our colleagues in the House do—that the Balkans is a finished operation, which happened some years ago and is now done and dusted. There will be, quite rightly, a huge turnout for a debate on Iraq today; there is a relatively small turnout for a debate on Serbia and Montenegro this morning. Serbia and Montenegro is vital to the whole of south-eastern Europe. We want to be part of a process of building a south-eastern Europe that trades, works and re-establishes the old relationships—not the old nations, which are gone—that allow the emergence of a strong part of our continent, which is less problematic for us. That is not a difficult ambition, and it is certainly easy to state.

Progress has not been made in recent years. All parties need to make a commitment and say that the region still matters enormously. We have responsibilities, and we have something enormous to gain if we get the process right. In this case, we can travel with a little more hope than the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) showed in his remarks. I want to finish by paying tribute to him. He speaks with enormous affection and emotion for the region, and Serbia and Montenegro. He has done the House a great service by securing the debate this morning.

10.29 am

I thank the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for securing the debate. He will acknowledge that, given the assassination of the Prime Minister, the debate sadly has become more topical than he might have appreciated when he requested it. I certainly defer to his local knowledge and expertise, and to that of the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and others who have spoken.

I should declare an interest as a member of the steering board of an organisation cumbersomely named the East-West Parliamentary Practice Project; it is changing its name to the Institute for Parliamentary Democracy, which is more manageable. It is organising a series of programmes over three years to work with parliamentarians in all the new Balkan democracies, at their request and according to the structure of their reforms and parliamentary workings. It has always been my view that we have as much to learn as to teach at seminars and discussions. It is our job not to turn up and tell people what to do but to share our weaknesses and failings.

As the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) half implied, it is a huge irony that, at the beginning of the 20th century, the future of Serbia was a matter of great concern on which the shape of the century pivoted. Here we are at the beginning of the 21st century, and the problem of Serbia and Montenegro is as unresolved, and as important to the stability of south-east Europe and the future shape of Europe, as ever. The history and politics of the Balkans are confusing, and none of us has the right to stand up and suggest that one solution is correct. Ultimately we have to work with the people of the area to help them arrive at viable solutions.

Britain has a legitimate interest in the area. I take gentle issue with the hon. Member for Uxbridge, who seemed to be casting aspersions in the direction of Liberal Democrats about a difference between our approaches to the Balkans and the current crisis in Iraq. The difference hinges on the fact that the Balkans is part of the Europe that we are trying to build and it is important that those of us who want to see a successful, if changing, European Union, recognise that Britain's interest is directly involved. By contrast, many of us view Iraq as crucial to the stability and future of the middle east; of course, we have an interest there, but it is not under our immediate political influence. That is why our approaches differ.

I absolutely agree that whatever one's view about the actions in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans, they were supported because we saw the immediate effects of people killing one another and sought to intervene to stop that. As the hon. Member for Uxbridge rightly acknowledged, we might have been successful in stopping ethnic cleansing in the short run, but not in its ultimate manifestation. We were successful in stopping people killing each other, and that was the justification that many of us went along with. I acknowledge that one of our biggest problems is the tendency to enter countries with a sharp military impact, creating long-term political problems that we do not have the interest or momentum to follow through. That is why mention has been made of Afghanistan and the Balkans.

In recent months, I visited Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina to monitor elections. I witnessed their perspective on Serbia. I take no opinion; I simply acknowledge what I saw. One thing hit me sharply. After a day at a seminar and a dinner, our host took us to a jazz club in Tirana some time after midnight. A girl got up and started enthusiastically singing, "I wanna be an Americano". People literally stood up on the tables and cheered, which would be a little surprising if it happened in Swindon or elsewhere in the United Kingdom. Such action brought home to me the fact that America was seen by that audience as the champion of some form of Albanian nationalism, whereas in Bosnia and Herzegovina there is the problem of Sarajevo's civil war experience of the Republika Srpska and its aspirations to be part of a greater Serbia.

In a sense, we can stand back and try to find viable political solutions, but any attempt to impose them will not succeed now any more than it has in the past. Our job must be to approach such matters without arrogance, but with humility and as genuine friends who want the region to have a stable and viable future, for its sake as well as for our sake. After the shocking assassination of Zoran Djindjic, we must be concerned that that was a signal that organised crime will confront attempts to crack down on those involved and create a climate where democracy and free enterprise can flourish. We must hope that the pledge of the successor, Mr. Zivkovic, to fulfil Djindjic's dream of a European democratic, efficient and prosperous Serbia will succeed.

We must recognise the obvious disparities and tensions in the new union of Serbia and Montenegro. We have not yet observed a democratically elected president for either of the entities because of the 50 per cent. rule, which I understand Montenegro will now try to alter. My guess is that Serbia will need to do so in due course. The union needs legitimate, elected political leadership that can carry through such reforms and that requires courage and a great deal of confrontation. I am not breaking any confidence by saying that, when I visited Sarajevo, Paddy Ashdown—the United Nations high representative—made it clear that he understood fully that confronting and defeating organised crime was probably the single most important issue that had to be resolved before true democracy, free enterprise and inward investment could flourish in the Balkans. Anyone who says that has to take on board the fact that we are confronting extremely vicious, ruthless killers who are willing to take on anyone without fear or favour. It is a difficult and dangerous area in which to operate.

We must clearly acknowledge the legitimacy of a constructive engagement between members of the European Union and the Balkans. I agree that the prospect of eventual membership of the European Union—which will be a different organisation in any case 15 years from now—is crucial. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central is the leader of the British delegation to the Council of Europe, of which I have the privilege and honour to be a member. I accept entirely his remarks that, within Britain and this Parliament, the Council of Europe is perhaps not regarded as an important body. However, those of us engaged in such a process realise how important it is and that the Government must recognise the role that it plays, which is different and distinctive from that of the European Union.

Of course, the Council of Europe works with European Union institutions. We lack their resources, but we have the beacon of 50-plus years of championing human rights and democracy. That is the absolute core of the Council of Europe. The prospect of membership of the Council of Europe on reasonable and clearly understood conditions for Serbia and Montenegro is the first step towards reassuring the country that it is part of the European family. It is not—I repeat the words of the hon. Member for Uxbridge—our job to tell it what to do. Our job is to work through its institutions and ours to create a prosperous, democratic Serbia and Montenegro and a stable Balkans, which is in the interests of the entire European continent.

10.39 am

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) for securing this debate. We had the benefit of his extraordinary knowledge and understanding of the area today. There have been some excellent and considered speeches, but I take this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), whom I have come to know. She is a remarkable parliamentarian and I very much regret her decision to leave the House of Commons at the next general election.

I also wish to add to what other hon. Members have said about the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic. It is a tragedy for Serbia and the region. My party and I send our condolences to his family at this difficult time for them and for the country. The tragedy once again brings into stark relief the problems still faced by Serbia and the great challenges still waiting to be addressed. We in the UK and the international community must continue to extend our help and support to Serbia and Montenegro at this most difficult time and recognise the great effort that Serbia is making to break with an authoritarian past and reform both its polity and its economy.

If we study the sad background to what has happened in Serbia and Montenegro, we see that in the 1990s there were terrible wars with genocide, slaughter, displaced people and destruction of property, leading ultimately to the Dayton accords. We should feel a certain amount of pride in the UK in recognising the role that we played in trying to help to stabilise Bosnia with our participation in I FOR, UNPROFOR and SFOR. We watched with horror the ethnic cleansing unleashed by Milosevic of Kosovo Albanians at the same time as we saw the Kosovo Liberation Army radicalised, coupled with an increase in cruel violence against innocent Serb civilians. We know what happened as a consequence, which ultimately led to the fall of Milosevic in October 2000.

The history of the Balkans is far too complex to provide easy answers, but the legacy is there. The economic condition of Serbia and Montenegro, with all of the displaced people mentioned by hon. Members this morning, remains a massive problem, with deep psychological scars there for all to see. I hope that, in his response, the Minister will enlarge on what we are doing and must continue to do to assist Serbs who have been displaced and remain refugees.

The role of the UK in supporting the opposition parties during the dark days of the late 1990s is equally worthy of praise. The fall of Milosevic and his subsequent extradition to The Hague and replacement by a new breed of politician marked a new opportunity for Serbia and Montenegro, which we must acknowledge and seek to build on. That opportunity must be seized.

One point has been made rather tellingly this morning; the British Government should not examine the situation on a purely country-specific basis. A broader approach is needed, designed to encompass the whole region. My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) touched on that point indirectly. I hope that the Minister will talk about the wider regional angle of the Balkans' place in Europe, a point mentioned by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). Only by adopting a suitably broad approach can we truly preserve the peace that we have sought to help to rebuild.

Much has changed in Serbia since 2000, the visible evidence of which is the change in the constitutional arrangements that flowed from the end of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia earlier this year, following last year's agreements and the replacement of the new looser union between Serbia and Montenegro. The settlement, which was brokered by the EU, provides for a larger degree of Montenegrin autonomy, although many want outright independence. The long-term future will be decided in 2006, when the two countries will decide whether to continue the arrangement. We hope that the new arrangements prove successful in meeting the aspirations. However, the changes have not proved flawless. It is important that the new arrangements will produce a better relationship between the two countries.

There are still some unresolved issues. We have heard again, in graphic terms, from the hon. Member for Halifax, about the missing Serbs in Kosovo and about the many Serbs who do not feel safe enough to return. That is still a massive problem. We must show our commitment to equality and democracy and we must show that the safety and security of Serbs in Kosovo is every bit as important to us as was the safety of the Kosovo Albanians, when they were threatened and attacked by Milosevic. The numbers of Serbs who fled Kosovo and who feel safe enough to return is still worryingly small, according to figures produced by our Government. All citizens of Kosovo—whether Serb or Albanian—must feel free from persecution and harassment.

One reason for the low turnout in elections is a sense of frustration born, possibly, from the state of the economy. The economic situation remains a problem and gives much concern. I met Serbian Members of Parliament last week and we talked about that matter. One of the factors that held back greater growth in Serbia and Montenegro, aside from the Milosevic legacy, is organised crime and lawlessness. Despite policies to counter it, it is still a massive problem; we saw that in the tragic assassination of the Prime Minister.

The Serbian Government are right in their determination to take on this insidious and destructive evil. Money goes where it feels safe and an impression of lawlessness unsettles investors, making them unwilling to invest directly into the area. The political situation in Serbia and Montenegro—its stability and the determination of the Government to reform—are vital in creating the conditions that are necessary to attract investment.

New members will be coming into the EU next year and I hope that, after a continuing process of reform, we will see exactly the same thing happening in due course for Serbia and Montenegro. The hope that that might happen is important to the people of those countries. Both countries have massive potential and I hope that that will be realised. Those points were specifically taken up by my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester and the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), and I agree entirely with the point about the Council of Europe.

We must help and support the reformers in Serbia and Montenegro, rather than simply criticise people. We must continue to work with those who are trying to bring about stability and prosperity after all the tragedies that they have endured, and we must encourage them to stick to a reformist course, however tough the obstacles might be. If we play our role and continue to work together—aiming to create a successful and prosperous Serbia and Montenegro—that would be an enduring legacy after the terrible tragedy suffered for far too long by the people in that region.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Mike O'Brien)

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on calling the debate; it was called when the political situation in Serbia and Montenegro was somewhat calmer than it is today. I welcome this opportunity to set out the Government's policy on Serbia and Montenegro. The debate has been good and has been characterised by important contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) and for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and from Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central that the Balkans is of enormous importance to Europe. What happens there is directly relevant to us and to what happens here. Because the Balkans area is so close, we must ensure that we have a close eye on everything that happens in it. If things go wrong there, the impact will be felt quickly in Britain and the rest of Europe.

The situation had looked better; the Serbia and Montenegro constitutional charter had been adopted and a new president was elected. New institutions were being formed. A new team was coming together to tackle the challenges that lie ahead and to bring Serbia and Montenegro further into the European family.

That has now changed. On 12 March 2003, the Serbian Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjic was assassinated as he walked from his car to Serbian Government buildings. He had been shot twice by a sniper. He was taken to hospital where he died in the operating theatre. The entire House will wish to join me in expressing revulsion at that supremely undemocratic act and in sending our condolences to his widow and children and to the people of Serbia.

On 15 March, the then Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) attended the funeral on behalf of the Government. It was one of his last and most important acts as Leader of the House, and I pay tribute to the work that my right hon. Friend did in that post and as Foreign Secretary in recent years. He delivered letters of condolence from our Prime Minister to Zoran's widow and the President of Serbia and Montenegro. The funeral was very moving. It was held in St. Sava church in Belgrade and hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets to pay their respects.

I wish to say a few words about Zoran Djindjic. I did not know him, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister knew him well, and several Members of this House met him, including my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central. Many Members met him when he visited Britain in 2002. He had a vision of where Serbia and Montenegro should be going and how to get there: he was brave and visionary. He was fluent in English and German, and he was a European politician who was capable of growing in stature. His achievements were many, but I will mention the three for which he will be best remembered: organising the Serbian pro-democracy movements of the 1990s; the transfer of Slobodan Milosevic to the International Criminal Court in June 2001; and starting to tackle the organised and war criminal networks that grew out of the Balkan wars during the past decade.

I strongly agree with the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) that confronting organised crime in the Balkans is the most important and difficult policy objective of the international community and the Governments in the region. It was probably the cause of Zoran Djindjic's murder because what he and other reformers strove for—democracy, the rule of law and vibrant economies—directly threatened the lifeblood of the criminal networks. Europe has lost a European leader, and the UK and Europe have lost a Serbian friend.

By 17 March, the Serbian authorities had pulled in at least 400 suspects for questioning, including the former head of the Serbian state security service. We welcome the Serbian authorities' determined efforts, and we have offered our support if and when they require it. A state of emergency has been declared and there is an increased security presence throughout the country. A working group consisting of key Serbian Ministers and the chief of the Serbia and Montenegro armed forces is monitoring its implementation. It is expected to stay in place until the end of April.

We are closely monitoring the situation. The political situation on the ground remains fluid, but it is slowly stabilising. On 16 March, Zoran Zivkovic was nominated to replace Djindjic as Serbian Prime Minister. On 17 March, Boris Tadic was appointed Defence Minister. Goran Svilanovic has been appointed Foreign Minister. On 7 March, Svetozar Marovic was elected President.

It is too soon to assess the long-term implications, but let me outline what the Government think are the key points for Serbia, the union of Serbia and Montenegro and the wider region in the coming weeks. We want to avoid Serbia descending into the hands of criminal elements. The determination with which the Serbian authorities have handled the situation so far bodes well, but this is not an easy task for them. There are testing times ahead. We will provide moral as well as practical support. The authorities must establish full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and ensure that war criminals are transferred immediately to The Hague. Any failure to take action against organised and war criminals will be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Together with our European partners, we will want to avoid any attempt by those opposed to the recent agreement on Serbia and Montenegro to undermine the deal. The appointment of the new Ministers will help to ensure the stability of the newly formed union. They must work together to ensure that the union makes early progress. A first priority should be the early adoption of a working and effective single market between Serbia and Montenegro, paving the way for an EU feasibility study for a stabilisation and association agreement.

Montenegro and the region suffer from the threat of organised crime. On 30 November 2002, the then Minister of the Interior, Andrija Jovicevic, ordered the arrest and prosecution of the deputy slate prosecutor for alleged involvement in people-smuggling. The Montenegrin authorities need to ensure that the case is properly investigated and that justice is done. The leadership shown in the fight against organised crime in Serbia must be replicated in Montenegro. Together with our partners and allies, we are warning off regional extremists, particularly Albanians, who may attempt to use those tragic events as an opportunity for disruption.

KFOR has stepped up its patrols. We welcome the universal condemnation of Prime Minister Djindjic's murder by politicians across the region and by the provisional institutions of self-government in Pristina. Their joint commitment to clamping down on organised crime and terrorism continues the legacy of political maturity that Prime Minister Djindjic was demonstrating in Serbia. We have requested that SFOR step up patrols in Republika Srpska. One of the chief suspects in the assassination attempt, Milorad Lukovic, is rumoured to be hiding there.

At the General Affairs and External Relations Council today, EU Ministers will consider what help we can give to the reformers in Belgrade and to the new Government at this critical time. Meanwhile, as NATO contact point in Belgrade, we continue to provide advice to the armed forces and civil society about the importance of reform and effective civilian control of the military.

The November 2002 London conference on organised crime identified organised crime as perhaps the biggest and growing threat to regional stability. Since we announced the conference, we have committed over a million pounds to crime fighting initiatives throughout the region. UK law enforcement officers have been posted to the region and neighbouring countries.

I have not had the opportunity to deal with all the points raised, but I hope to write to hon. Members on one or two points that I had hoped to deal with. I should just say that the murder of Prime Minister Djindjic was not just another murder in the Balkans. It was an attack on Serbia's stability, regional stability and the Balkans partnership with the European wider community. It is a grisly reminder that, although outwardly stable, the region remains vulnerable.

Since the Dayton agreement in 1995, the extremists have been gradually marginalised. The Kosovo campaign in 1999 and the overthrow of Milosevic in 2000 have made their pernicious influence wane further. However, the assassination reminds us that they and the organised criminals and gangsters who sustain them have not disappeared. Despite the other claims on our attention at the present time, we cannot afford to neglect the Balkans.

The criminals must learn that they have had their day. We will support the Belgrade reformers at this crucial hour. They and we must continue to tackle the underlying causes of extremism and act against the gangsters, war criminals and other thugs who hinder Serbia's future. We will do that and work with Serbian reformers to create a better Serbia and Montenegro.