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Progress Comes Slowly to Balkans


Progress often comes slowly to the Balkans, that mountainous part of southeastern Europe that extends southeast from Belgrade and includes most of the former Yugoslavia. VOA's Barry Wood, just back from the region, finds a mixed picture of some progress amid continuing tension and uncertainty.

The good news is that there's been no open war warfare in the Balkans for nearly two years. In Macedonia a government of Macedonians and ethnic Albanians is making slow progress in implementing the August 2001 accord that ended an insurgency by promising greater powers to the Albanian minority. NATO peacekeepers have withdrawn, their place taken by a force of just a few hundred soldiers from the European Union.

In Kosovo, Macedonia's neighbor to the northwest, the United Nations is steadily handing administrative powers to the Kosovar Albanians who comprise over 90 percent of the population. A large and visible NATO-led force remains in a territory that is still nominally part of Serbia. The Kosovars want independence, something that the international community has been unwilling to consider. However, in recent months the European Union has softened its opposition and suggested that final status talks could begin within two years. For the first time since the 1999 war, the local administration and the Serbian government are about to hold direct negotiations.

Serbia itself is still recovering from the March assassination of the country's reformist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic. In the weeks that followed, the government launched a major drive against the organized crime gangs linked to the killing. The unwieldy multiparty coalition that has ruled Serbia since 2001 is holding together. New elections could come later this year. A new constitution is being written. Since February Serbia has been linked to Montenegro in a looser federation that is popular in neither territory. The arrangement was cobbled together in 2002 by the European Union, which wanted to delay Montenegro's drive for independence.

The bad news is economic. Yes, there are new shopping centers in Belgrade and credit cards can now easily be used where once they couldn't. But throughout the region people lack purchasing power and generally can afford only the necessities. Unemployment remains exceedingly high in some places as high as 40 percent. Macedonia and Montenegro are dependent on foreign assistance and Serbia has failed to attract the volume of foreign investment it wanted.

Young people often the best educated are still leaving for other lands where they see greater opportunity. With the possible exception of Kosovo, there's been no reverse immigration of exiles who want to build prosperity at home.

If there is one motivating force unifying this war ravaged region it is the hope of integration into Euro Atlantic structures. Only the most extreme politicians oppose membership in NATO and the European Union. Governments suspicious of their neighbors are willing to cooperate to meet the requirements of eventual membership.

In another part of the world there is a road maps for peace. The Balkan countries seek a road map for integration in western institutions. NATO and the EU are receptive and they've specified the conditions that must be fulfilled. Some progress is occurring. The danger is that if old conflicts again burst into violence, the progress will be lost and today's tentative optimism will vanish.