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Westminster Hall

Thursday 11 November 2004

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Western Balkans

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

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas) : I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing us to debate the problems of the western Balkans. I appreciate the continuing effort of British soldiers and of our police, non-governmental organisation staff and civil servants who work in the region and on issues concerned with it.

The break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991 led to a decade of truly terrible conflict. Walking through Sarajevo last week, I saw constant reminders of the horrors of that conflict—the shell-damaged buildings and the memorials erected in respect of various aspects of the tragedy. One of the most poignant memorials, known as Sarajevo roses, are red marks painted on the ground wherever a shell or grenade killed six or more people.

It is difficult truly to comprehend the scale of suffering that took place on all sides of the conflict. However, the numbers give some indication. In Bosnia alone, about 250,000 people were killed and 400,000 injured, and more than half the population was displaced. That is apart from the appalling atrocities that took place at various points during the wars—and Bosnia is only one part of the region to have suffered. Croatia, Kosovo, Serbia and Macedonia all saw conflict during that time. In Kosovo, as many as 200,000 people may still be displaced.

As well as the human cost, the countries of the region have had to cope with the impact of the conflicts on their economies. They have all had to make the painful transition from planned economies to market economies, and the conflicts clearly did not help the process. In most of former Yugoslavia, the national income has halved, and unemployment has affected large portions of the labour force. Normal economic activity was disrupted and destroyed, and efforts to reform bankrupt economies and to make the successful transition from central planning to the much-needed market economy were severely complicated. Even Albania, which did not face war, suffered economic collapse as a result of the mishandled transition from the Enver Hoxha period.

The destruction caused by the wars created an environment in which criminality was able to flourish. Organised crime, including the trafficking of drugs and people, is a major problem that affects not only those countries themselves but others, including the United Kingdom. One small example is the fact that 80 per cent. of the heroin from Afghanistan that ends up in Britain's cities comes through the western Balkans.

I do not want to paint too gloomy a picture, however, because real progress is being made. Nearly 10 years after the Dayton peace agreement brought the brutal
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hostilities to an end in Bosnia, the country has taken huge strides forward; as a unified state it has realistic ambitions to become part of NATO and ultimately the European Union. That would have seemed completely fanciful at the time of the Dayton accords. Lord Paddy Ashdown, the international community's high representative, is able to take an increasingly back-seat role, and Bosnians are taking more responsibility for their own politics and development.

People are showing greater confidence in the country. The fact that as many as a million refugees and internally displaced people are now returning to their homes is a sign of confidence. The expectation is that the high representative could be replaced with a European Union special representative, whose role would be to monitor Bosnia's moves towards Europe.

Without exception, all the politicians whom I met last week were clearly focused on the need for Bosnia to become part of the European family of nations, adopting European standards and norms. In part, those politicians saw the clear economic benefits of becoming part of Europe, but more important was the political benefit of a clear road map to a stable and free society, with modern and efficient public administration delivering effective services to the people.

In a country without established institutions and recovering from civil war, such a vision is extremely valuable. The recognition from all political parties—particularly the leaders whom I met—of the value of European integration is important, because it will not always be easy to achieve the various steps along the road to EU accession. It will require considerable political determination from them.

One area where determination will be required, and where progress is fundamental if the countries of the former Yugoslavia are to become part of the European Union, is the need for fuller co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Twenty one of those indicted by that tribunal for the atrocities that took place still remain at large. Bringing them to justice after the terrible ethnic cleansing and massacres that took place remains fundamental to maintaining progress in the region. If Bosnia and other countries are to join Europe or be fully reconciled, more progress must be made to bring those war criminals to justice.

Within the region, Croatia is leading the way in terms of EU accession. It suffered as much as any other part of the region from the conflicts of the 1990s. With a Government committed to reform established in 2000, its economy has performed strongly. It was accepted by NATO into the partnership for peace programme in 2001, and this year it has been formally accepted as a candidate for membership of the European Union.

Since 1997, the UK has provided more than £150 million through my Department to the western Balkans. We were active in Bosnia during the war and were one of the first donors to deliver assistance to Serbia after the fall of Milosevic in 2000. We also made a huge contribution to the humanitarian effort in Kosovo.

In Bosnia, a terrible legacy of the conflict is the large area of the country still covered by land mines. We are helping to tackle that major problem. Last Thursday, I visited a village about an hour from Sarajevo that had been on the front line of the conflict. Serb and Muslim
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villagers had been forced to leave at different times and both forces had laid anti-personnel mines in the village—even the cemetery and the school were mined. I saw the dangerous and painstaking work being undertaken by those working for the Bosnia and Herzegovina mine action centre. I hope that the House will pay tribute to the considerable bravery being shown by those men in clearing the fields of the village and allowing it and other areas of Bosnia to return to normal life.

In Kosovo, the Department is one of the most significant donors to the health sector. Early support ensured that the hospital in Pristina continued to provide effective health care services to the population in the immediate aftermath of the conflict. We improved patient care by helping to strengthen the quality of hospital management and providing new equipment and other support. We are now working to strengthen the capacity of the Ministry of Health to plan and deliver improved services, not only in Pristina, but throughout Kosovo.

We are also working to strengthen a range of social services across the whole of the western Balkans, including pension systems, employment services, social care for vulnerable groups and other forms of benefit systems. We are trying not only to improve delivery of those services but to ensure that they are accessible for the very poorest people and those closest to the poverty line.

My Department has been working throughout the region to improve the capacity of public administration more generally. In the Serb republic in Bosnia, for    example, we have assisted the drafting and implementation of a new civil service law that is helping to build an independent, merit-based, depoliticised civil service.

We are helping to strengthen the capability of the Prime Minister's office in Kosovo so that it can implement better co-ordination and delivery of policy. We are also helping the provisional Government to track progress towards meeting the Kosovo standards, which is an essential step along the route to resolving Kosovo's final status.

The combination of the move from a planned economy to a market economy and the destruction wrought by war has left much of the industry in the Balkans in a truly terrible state. Markets have completely disappeared, much of the industrial plant is obsolete, and key suppliers have gone to different markets and different countries. It is essential to revitalise industry and to secure the investment needed to make the necessary economic progress to create jobs and tackle poverty.

In Bosnia, we recently completed a programme of technical advice that has supported the successful restructuring of 32 newly privatised companies employing some 16,000 workers. That is helping to safeguard future jobs and future economic growth there.

The United Kingdom has made a contribution that is broader than simply providing development assistance in the region. British troops have been a fundamental element of the international forces posted in Kosovo
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and Bosnia. Their professionalism and skill have been vital for maintaining peace and stability in the region. We have also provided strong support for reform efforts in the region and have encouraged Governments to promote their plans for integration into the European Union.

The UK is a key political player in the region. We are active in the contact group and are considering ways in which to resolve the problems of Kosovo's status and the Peace Implementation Council in Bosnia, but it is still impossible to visit the region and not recognise the immense challenges that remain for the countries and the peoples of the region. The area remains politically and economically extremely fragile. Corruption and organised crime continue to blight it, and extremism and ethnic tension remain just under the surface. Return to large-scale conflict is unlikely, but we are reminded all too frequently of the region's fragility.

Kosovo is the greatest challenge to long-term peace in the region. Ethnic Albanian extremism continues to cause much tension. The Chamber will be familiar with the events in March this year, which saw the worst violence in the region since 1999. Violent clashes between Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs triggered inter-ethnic violence that left 19 people dead and 900 injured. Serb houses and Orthodox churches were also burned down.

Kosovo is now calm, but the situation remains tense. The sudden eruption of violence was a wake-up call to the international community. It highlighted the lack of progress in the past five years and the need to step up progress significantly if we are to maintain stability in the region, despite the UN administration.

My visit to Kosovo last week was made a week after the assembly elections. Although the elections were judged to be free and fair by the international community, they emphasised the continuing divide between the two communities, as only about 1 per cent. of Kosovar Serbs chose to participate in them. That fragility is not unique to Kosovo. The assassination of the Prime Minister in Serbia last year demonstrated the problem of fragility there, too.

In Macedonia, the recent referendum on municipal boundaries threatened to unravel the Ohrid agreement, but fortunately did not succeed. Even in Bosnia, the complex constitutional arrangements that the Dayton accords set in place presents a threat to its stability. The fact that there can be 13 Prime Ministers in Bosnia as well as nine Presidents is symptomatic of the fragility and the need for further progress. Again, in Albania and Serbia, weak and fractious coalition Governments make it difficult to generate the political will to make further economic and social reforms.

One of the aspects that contributes to the fragility of the region is the continuing economic and social problems facing people in rural areas in particular, but also in some of the poorest parts of the urban areas. It is important to remember that the former Yugoslavia was relatively prosperous, but poverty is now widespread across the region. Nearly a quarter of the population live in poverty, and a significant minority live in extreme poverty. Albania undoubtedly remains the poorest country, with some 25 per cent. of the population living on less than $1.50 a day—that is worse than in some parts of Africa.
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Unemployment remains a serious concern throughout the region. Official figures suggest that some 60 per cent. of the population in Kosovo is unemployed. There is a general perception that the reforms that have been implemented have failed to provide tangible benefits to the people. That undoubtedly helped to feed the extreme nationalism in parts of the region that has resurfaced recently, and encouraged the activities of organised criminals.

Given that picture, it would be easy to be pessimistic about the future of the western Balkans. However, I believe that we should remain optimistic. In large part, the reason for optimism is the potential role that could be played by the European Union. The countries in the western Balkans are part of Europe and they have legitimate aspirations to join the EU. We have long supported the principle of enlarging the EU and we are committed to including the countries of the western Balkans. Of course, there is still a long way to go before we reach that point, but integration into Europe provides powerful incentives for reform and a vision of what a better future looks like.

The European Commission has responded to the needs of the region. The European Agency for Reconstruction, which was set up in the aftermath of the Kosovo conflict, provided huge sums of money to help with the immediate humanitarian needs as well as the longer-term reconstruction effort.

Kosovo presents particular challenges, and is an important ongoing source of instability in the region. The violence in March galvanised the international community into reassessing its approach to Kosovo. In a hard-hitting report for the UN Secretary-General, the Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide set out the strategy for making sustained progress in Kosovo. I am pleased to say that the UN has broadly endorsed that strategy. The UK Government also strongly support that reform process.

Last week, I was able to meet Soren Jessen-Petersen, the Secretary-General's new special representative in Pristina. He has a refreshingly clear vision of the direction in which he wants to take the UN mission in Kosovo, and of what needs to be done.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Can the Minister enlighten us as to the Government's view on the political future of Kosovo? Do they have an idea of the kind of Government that should be in place there, or will the transitional arrangements remain for ever and aye?

Mr. Thomas : One of the key things that the UN mission in Kosovo has set out, which we support, is a series of standards against which progress must be made before the issue of final status can be resolved. One of those standards is that a proper, functioning democracy should be in place, with respect for minority rights and a fully open market economy. Progress against those standards will be reviewed next year. There are continuing discussions about the nature of the final status of Kosovo. It is important that those discussions continue and that we try to achieve consensus. That is something that Soren Jessen-Petersen is trying to take forward.
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As well as addressing standards and the final status issue, we need to make more progress on transferring powers from the UN mission in Kosovo to the provisional institutions of self-government, to increase their responsibility and accountability to the people of Kosovo. That will require fundamental reform and a fundamental change of approach by the UN mission in Kosovo. We must also see progress on economic development and the strengthening of the role of local government.

That is undoubtedly a large reform agenda, and I stressed to Soren Jessen-Petersen the importance of beginning to make progress and of generating sustained momentum in the reform process before the standards review, to which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) alluded. The special representative has made a strong start, but with the elections completed we need to see concrete progress on the ground.

International development assistance has an important continuing role to play in supporting reform and development in the region. The international community has invested £2.5 billion annually in the region. In 2003, the European Commission alone invested £450 million, of which our share was £90 million. We also have a bilateral programme in the Balkans, which is worth almost £14 million this year.

Given the size of our programme and the substantial amounts of other donor funding available, we have prioritised the need to develop Governments' capacity and capability to deliver more effective services. As we know, if countries want to tackle poverty and to have a strong economy, good schools and good health services, it is crucial that they have an effective civil service in place.

We are also focusing on strengthening the effectiveness of overall international assistance. We are working, for example, to ensure that the European accession agenda and the economic and social development agenda, on which the World Bank is leading, are more effectively combined. As I said, we are also seeking to promote Governments' capacity and capability to take forward their own development priorities through poverty reduction strategies. The same is true of their agendas and ambitions for EU accession.

The UK will continue to support peace and reconciliation in the region by working through the contact group and at the UN to make progress on resolving the final status issue and by continuing to provide appropriate military support to international deployments in the region. We also need to continue working closely with Governments in the region to address the scourge of organised crime, particularly where it is involved in drugs and people trafficking.

To conclude, there has been considerable progress in the western Balkans over the past five years, although it is undoubtedly fragile. The prospect of EU accession provides the single most important incentive to cement reform and pursue further progress. It is clear that our development assistance, as well as further sustained international effort, will be fundamental to supporting the economic and social progress that is still necessary in the region, as well as to the issue of EU accession. If we
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can continue in that way, we can build on the solid foundations that have been put down since the Dayton peace agreement.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Nicholas Winterton): Before I call the spokesman for Her Majesty's Opposition, let me seek to help hon. Members by advising them that there are likely to be one or more Divisions at 4.25 pm. Hon. Members may wish to plan the length of their speeches accordingly.

2.54 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to discuss this critical region, in which Britain still has a considerable number of troops and a considerable commitment to international development.

The multi-ethnic patchwork of peoples and religions that make up the western Balkans provide the fault lines for the horrendous conflicts that engulfed those nations in the 1990s and have done over the centuries. Before analysing the issues country by country as the Minister did, I want to make some fairly obvious broad points. The countries share a background of political instability, to a greater or lesser extent, and recent ethnic conflict has been a feature in many of them. I shall not, however, repeat the unhappy catalogue that he listed. Strategies are needed to heal the divisions and to develop functional, multi-ethnic states.

I agree with the Minister that a key aim is the eventual integration of the region, bit by bit, into the European Union. If the political leaders in the area know that their nations have a realistic prospect of joining the EU, it will provide an incentive for each to pursue unified and reformist policies to meet the criteria that the EU rightly sets out.

In Bosnia, the declaration of independence in 1992 led to three years of extremely vicious war, which the regime in Belgrade at that time used as a pretext for uniting all the Serbs living in what used to be the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. That led to ethnic cleansing of non-Serbs, who were systematically expelled from their homes. It is, however, only half the story to talk just about ethnic cleansing by Serbs; although they were the first to do it and they did it on the largest scale, once the fighting began, no group—Serb, Croat or Bosnian—emerged guilt free from the civil war. Indeed, that cannot be separated from the massive expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from Krajina towards the end of the conflict in Bosnia.

Since the dark days of the early 1990s, there has been considerable progress in Bosnia towards peace and stability. The presence of NATO troops there has been fundamental, securing a stable and peaceful environment and allowing the country to move forward from its troubled past. I was impressed with the work that they were doing when I visited the area some years ago with the Select Committee on Defence. There is no doubt that international forces continue to be needed there.

Obviously, I am concerned about the planned replacement of the NATO operation by an untried, EU-led force. There are fears that that imminent transfer
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may have more to do with boosting EU desires for a separate defence capability than with providing the most effective form of policing and security for Bosnia. I hope that those fears are ill-founded and I wish the EU-led force the very best, but it is crucial that EUFOR, which I believe is the right name for the new force, learns as much as possible from the NATO forces from which it is taking over in order to give itself the optimum chance of success. It is true that it is a different job now; security challenges have moved from peacemaking through peacekeeping to tackling organised crime, corruption, border security and so on. Nevertheless, to achieve the accelerated economic and structural reform so vital to Bosnia's future development, a stable security environment, with a clear chain of command, is essential.

The US ambassador to Bosnia, Clifford Bond, told local newspapers that the NATO and EU missions would be clearly separated, with NATO involved in operations demanding logistics, intelligence and military capabilities for which EUFOR does not have the capabilities. Such statements suggest that the US intends the new NATO mission to hold a superior position in relation to EUFOR. It would be helpful if the Minister could clarify NATO's continuing role. There have been hints from America that it may keep troops in the area separate from the EUFOR troops, which would make for a larger total military presence, because EUFOR's numbers will match the existing NATO numbers, and the other troops will be in addition. None the less, it is vital that there is a clearly defined chain of command, and it would be helpful if he said something about that in his winding-up speech.

On a personal note, I was glad to hear the Minister's comments on mine clearing. As chance would have it, my father-in-law set up the UN's original de-mining unit, working for Kofi Annan in his previous job as head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He still goes back as an independent consultant. He is in Afghanistan at the moment, but he spends quite a lot of time in the Balkans. I know from him that the task is huge—indeed, I saw some work in progress when I was over there briefly—and that increasing progress is being made.

The difficulties in respect of Kosovo are the most complex of all. Supposed advances made in 2003 appear to have amounted to rather less than we hoped; arguably, they merely suppressed rather than resolved the main differences dividing the majority Albanian and minority Serb communities. The Minister alluded to the riots in March, when 19 people were killed in the worst clashes since 1999. The democracy of last month's general election was called into question by the Serb boycott, to which he also referred. There are allegations that that was inspired by Belgrade.

When I was in the region, as I was a couple of times shortly after the fighting, we received from our security forces in the area testimony on all sides of the persecution of the Serbs in the area by the Kosovans. The Minister's description of the burning of churches and the attacks on Serb civilians fitted exactly the picture that I remember; his descriptions were depressingly familiar.

The main underlying obstacle to a progressive agenda in Kosovo is the issue of final status. Of course, the main   immediate obstacle is the friction between the
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communities. The Serb election boycott has generated concerns that that was a dress rehearsal for the Serbs' approach to the planned talks about Kosovo's future status. The legitimacy of those talks will inevitably be called into question if there is no Serb mandate for them or at least no Serb acquiescence in them. Increased EU pressure on Belgrade may help to influence the Kosovo Serbs to participate in local institutions, but only if the return of Serb refugees and their security are a condition of the granting of final status. For the foreseeable future, security must remain the responsibility of NATO, so that the Serbs know that they are protected by an international force, rather than just by the Kosovo Protection Corps, which is almost entirely an ethnic Albanian force.

At the time of my original visit, there was not a single prison anywhere in Kosovo. I understand that there has been quite a lot of progress in that regard and that there are now a number of prisons, so that murderers are not simply released after a few days in a police cell. However, I would be interested if the Minister could comment on two parallel issues relating to security. He may wish to write to me, as they are both points of detail. First, has the pay of the Kosovan police been sorted out? They were paid the equivalent of one fifth of the rate of a UN translator—a quite inadequate amount on which to support a family. Corruption was endemic in the police because there was no other way in which they could support their families. Secondly, has there been any progress on the attempt to recruit some Serbs to the police force?

The Kosovan economy is a major obstacle to development, as it has been ever since the fighting. At least three fifths of the population are unemployed; 96 per cent. of the goods consumed in Kosovo are made or produced abroad; and there is, as the Minister acknowledged, a culture of organised crime. It is bizarre to visit a country and see vast numbers of stolen cars. The vast majority of stolen cars on the roads are immediately identifiable as such because they still have the number plates of the countries from which they were stolen.

International aid to the region has fallen substantially in recent years. Despite that reduction, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has publicly criticised the EU for allocating development money to the region rather than to Africa. International aid is essential to tackle the floundering economy and thus political stability in the region. I was glad to hear the Minister confirm that.

The legacy of Milosevic's rule in Serbia has left the country recovering from the psychological scars of conflict and civil war. Much has changed. Perhaps the most visible evidence of that change was the end of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 2003 and its replacement with the new, looser union of Serbia and Montenegro. The fears some years ago about military action by Serbia in Montenegro are now forgotten, and the relationship has clearly matured. The real success of the union, however, will be decided in 2006, when the two countries decide whether to continue the arrangement. Refugee returns remain a pressing issue in Serbia, and I should be interested to hear from the Minister what is being done to assist Serbs who have been displaced from Croatian Krajina and remain refugees.
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Other challenges that must be confronted are the economy, in which unemployment remains high, and the problem of organised crime and lawlessness, which was tragically illustrated by the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic in March last year. Of course, the best way to help Serbia is to provide help and support for democratic Serb and Montenegrin leaders, and to encourage them to adopt a reformist course, however tough the obstacles.

The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia has had a reasonably good year, with the presidential election in April demonstrating the level of democratic maturity and stability that that nation has now attained. Yet the survival of the state in its present form is still not completely assured. As elsewhere, the remaining significant challenges are to reform the economy and stimulate employment.

Probably the most decisive issue is still the devolution of power to local government units and its impact on the delicate ethnic balance of power in that small country. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether the British Government are planning to follow the US Administration's decision to recognise the FYRM as Macedonia. I appreciate that there is a problem involving Greece in that context.

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): The United States has just acknowledged that the name of the country is Macedonia. The issue has caused a lot of problems, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend thinks that this country should be following suit.

Mr. Brazier : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I asked the question, but I do not at this stage have a view as to whether it would be wise to take that course. However, given the statement that America has just made, it would be useful to know whether the Government, after receiving representations from the Greeks and from the FYRM, have taken a view on it. The Greeks' opposition stems, of course, from a concern that they have a province called Macedonia and that they do not want their border to be threatened.

The states of the western Balkans have all reached different stages of development, and residual tensions and ethnic prejudices remain, although there are greater problems in some states than in others—problems that stifle or hold back attempts to create prospering, multi-ethnic states. Efforts must be made, through education as well as by more proactive political, legal and economic means, to tackle those difficulties. That is another area in which the international community has much to offer.

Like the Minister, I remain convinced that the prospect of EU membership and eventual membership of NATO will be a powerful spur to reform and progress. An unambiguous commitment should be made that the countries of the region will be welcomed as EU members once they meet the various conditions on human rights, regional co-operation, democracy and economic reform. The EU must for its part make determined efforts to improve its outreach to the politicians of the region and the populations as a whole if it wants to demonstrate its long-term commitment to a progressive agenda in those countries. However, I also believe that the EU must accept, in all humility, that NATO can do more where the security challenges are greatest.
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We all look forward to the day when the region learns to live with and respect its special multicultural nature. What is needed first is for all parties to be willing to admit to crimes that have been committed on their behalf, and to forgive. It is easy for us to make that comment in the safety of London, but the recent statement by Bosnian Serb leaders in which they said that they sympathised with the pain of the relatives of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre and expressed sincere regrets and apologies was an example of what is needed if progress is to be made in the healing process. Ultimately, the key to the western Balkans has to be people learning to live in peace together. The more we can do to assist them, the better.

3.11 pm

John Austin (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab): I echo the words of my hon. Friend the Minister in expressing admiration and support for the work of the British troops who have participated in KFOR and SFOR and who do such a valuable peacekeeping job in the region.

I do not want to dwell on the past, but at the beginning of the debate it is important to acknowledge not only the faults in the Balkans but the mistakes that we in the international community may have made. Our failure to recognise the legitimate aspirations of the people of the former Republic of Yugoslavia, when it was clear to any observer that the federation could not survive, and insistence on maintaining that federation under Milosevic led to many of the initial difficulties. There might have been an easier way forward.

Similarly—I think that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) will agree with me, because we discussed this at the time—the Dayton agreement was important for settling the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the fate that would befall Kosovo was predictable then, because of the principles on which it was based. We must recognise the mistake that we made in including Milosevic as a partner in the peace process in order to get a quick fix. The sacrificial lamb was Kosovo.

On a more positive note, I very much welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister, and the positive role that the Department for International Development is playing in the regional assistance plan. I should also like to mention the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which I shall chair for a few more weeks and of which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood is currently vice-chairman. We in the IPU have been preaching the same message as my hon. Friend the Minister. We have used every opportunity in our meetings with representatives of the Balkan countries to emphasise the need to demonstrate transparency and good governance, to tackle corruption and crime, to respect minority rights and to co-operate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

In September, I visited Montenegro with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). I was representing the IPU at the Cetinje forum, a body that first met in February 2004 in Cetinje, the former capital of Montenegro. It is a forum for parliamentary dialogue. The first meeting in February was attended by
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the Speakers or Deputy Speakers of the Parliaments of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro, with Slovenia in attendance. Earlier this year, as part of its programme of dialogue with fellow parliamentarians, the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union hosted a delegation from Serbia and Montenegro, led by the Vice-President of the Assembly of Serbia and Montenegro, Milorad Drlijevic. All right hon. and hon. Members and Members of the other place who attended found it positive and encouraging for the future of the region. The delegates clearly indicated a wish to put the past behind them and work together, both in their country and with their neighbours, towards the aim of eventually taking their place in the European Union. As the Minister said, we saw their aspiration for EU membership as a spur to the necessary economic and constitutional reforms.

What was most encouraging was the desire of those parliamentarians to work with their neighbours to establish stability, for which they sought the help and support of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It was for that reason that the hon. Member for Ribble Valley and I represented the IPU at the second Cetinje forum as observers. Also attending were delegates from Romania and Bulgaria, and observers from Italy and the UK. A copy of the final statement that was agreed unanimously by the forum has been forwarded to my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, with whom I discussed the issue and our possible continued involvement in the forum this week. He welcomed the initiative as a new means of bringing together parliamentary representatives from across the region and the EU to stimulate debate and joint action to help the western Balkans in their progress towards European integration.

The Minister for Europe toured the region this year. He and I agree that the economic and political situation is slowly improving but that there are still many legacies from the past that need to be addressed, not least Kosovo and co-operation with the ICTY. Croatia, I am pleased to say, is well on the way to European Union membership, hopefully alongside Romania and Bulgaria, but there are still hurdles for Serbia and Montenegro. On our visit, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley and I emphasised the need for Serbia and Montenegro to co-operate fully with the ICTY. To be fair, the Montenegrins have co-operated, and it can only be hoped that their presence within the state union will bring further pressure to bear on Serbia. Macedonia and Albania also face many economic and political difficulties before they can be seen as viable candidate countries, but that is their aspiration and it should be encouraged.

As the Minister said, the region has made good progress over the past three years through political, institutional and economic reform. A return to large-scale conflict now seems unlikely, although, as hon. Members have said, we cannot rule it out. The problems of extremism and ethnic tensions are receding, but they remain under the surface, as the violence in Kosovo in March demonstrated. The Kosovars suffered enormously under the Serbian tyranny of Milosevic, and it is easy to understand their anger and suspicion; but the Serbs in Kosovo have rights too, not least a right to live in security and peace. I support the rights of
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Kosovars to self-determination, but that can become a reality only if they recognise the rights of the Serbian minority. If we look at Kosovo's past, we can see that the only way forward is through its independence. Under Tito, it was an independent republic in all but name: it had its own judicial system, supreme court, elected assembly and national bank, and it had equality with the other republics of the former Yugoslavia in the presidency. Milosevic destroyed that, and I am sorry to say that the Dayton accords allowed it.

The Minister and the Government recognise the extent to which immature political and economic systems frustrate progress in the region, and how some forces, particularly criminal forces, can impede progress through undue influence and corruption. Systems of good governance and the establishment of accountable law enforcement structures and judiciaries are priorities for the Balkan countries. The problem of refugees and displaced persons remains a key challenge, but the creation of bodies such as the Cetinje forum shows a willingness among parliamentarians in the region to address those issues, and to do so through dialogue, not force. I was pleased that at Cetinje I could outline some of the measures in the Department for International Development's new regional assistance plan.

I welcome the sharp focus of the Department's work. As the Minister has acknowledged, there is a problem in that donors frequently tend to be driven by divergent agendas, in some cases based on specific political interests. The European Union and the World Bank, for example, have different approaches, which can lead to conflicting advice. I welcome his commitment and that of the Department to work with other donors to iron out some of the differences.

DFID's resources are relatively modest, but they are not insignificant. DFID has a key role to play to ensure that the other donors' activities are co-ordinated and lead to best value. I welcome DFID's concentration on poverty reduction strategies and capacity building, which the Minister outlined, and its decision to use its development assistance primarily in support of other donors' activities.

Widespread poverty in parts of the western Balkans, particularly the former Yugoslavia, is a relatively new phenomenon. Yugoslavia had a relatively strong economy, low levels of poverty and a state system to support the vulnerable, but that masked an economy with serious structural problems and unsustainable borrowing. The goal of European integration is the single most effective spur to take measures to bring economic and political stability, but the short-term risks of conflict still need to be addressed and the international community needs to continue to provide support for post-conflict recovery.

The central European experience can provide some lessons for the western Balkans. The most successful countries in central and eastern Europe are those that can attract foreign investment. I am pleased that there are encouraging signs and that countries such as Albania, which is perhaps the furthest from European membership, have taken that issue on board.

Earlier this week, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) and I met representatives of the chamber of commerce from Albania. Some of them were here partly for the world travel exhibition but also to talk
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about inward investment in tourism, agriculture, mineral exploration and energy production. I know that DFID, in its strategy as a stakeholder, is engaging with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the EU and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to assess the appropriate forms of assistance.

As I have recently returned from Montenegro, perhaps I can talk about some of its needs. While I was there, I visited Podgorica for meetings with Prime Minister Djukanovic and the Speaker, Ranko Krivokapic. If time allows, I would like to make some comments later about the outcome of those talks, but I also visited other parts of the country, which included a visit to the port of Bar, and met representatives of the development company Nimont, which is developing the resource, and representatives of the Port of Bar Holding Company.

Clearly, the port has an important future in the economy of Montenegro and its neighbours. It is underused compared with its capacity and the use that it had before the conflict in the region. I have forwarded details of the port and its needs to my hon. Friend the Minister for Trade and Investment, as well as giving details of Montenegro's policies for dealing with inward investment. In order to achieve its potential, improvements are needed in the infrastructure, in roads and railways. The best strategy for poverty reduction in some of the poorest areas in the north would be road developments to enable them to transport and export their agricultural produce.

When in London on their IPU visit in March, the Serbia and Montenegro delegation met representatives of the EBRD as part of the programme organised by the British group. They followed that up in April with a letter to the president of the EBRD, Mr. Lemierre, addressing the two goals set out by the bank: democratic development and the market economy. They spelled out the need for road development to assist the growth of tourism and agriculture as well as the development of hydroelectric power. They have the potential to become an energy exporting country. Sadly, however, no response to that letter had been received when I was in Montenegro in September, although I am pleased to learn that last week the UK director of the EBRD visited Belgrade and Podgorica. I hope that that will lead to significant developments.

One of the key projects is the Adriatic-Ionian highway, which will eventually connect Trieste in Italy with Thessaloniki in Greece. Work is already well under way on that highway in Croatia, which should reach the Montenegran border by 2007. Hopefully the road will continue to its final destination.

There is a need in Montenegro for two further roads to support that highway, one of which is from Bar to Bijelo Polje, via Podgorica. Part of that road is already under construction, with funding from the privatisation process in Montenegro, and donor assistance from the European Union. The second road, which has been argued for persuasively, is from Risan to Pljevlja, which is about 150 miles. Part of that road is already built. If completed it would be the shortest link between Serbia and eastern Bosnia and the sea, and connect the areas of Montenegro most likely to attract inward investment. The other important proposal is to connect the railway
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system, from Podgorica to Albania. Those projects will be crucial measures for the developing economies of Montenegro and its neighbours.

Finally, I should like to comment on the discussions that I had with Prime Minister Djukanovic and the Speaker of the Montenegran Parliament. In my meeting with Prime Minister Djukanovic I stressed the need for the opposition parties to be brought back into the democratic process. At the time they were boycotting the Parliament, so I am pleased that there has been a positive development and that the opposition politicians have re-engaged with the parliamentary process. I also stressed the need for co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. I said earlier that Montenegro was not the sinner in that, but I hope that it will bring pressure to bear on its neighbours.

I said at the outset that we must recognise the legitimate aspirations of the peoples of the Balkans. We cannot impose on them a settlement that is unacceptable to them; however, it is the view of Her Majesty's Government and the EU that the state union of Serbia and Montenegro offers the best prospects for entry into the EU.

The EU Foreign Ministers decided at Maastricht to open the way for separate discussions with Serbia and Montenegro on tariff issues. The two economies are completely at variance. Serbia still has the dinar, but Montenegro has the euro. The make-up of the two economies is structurally different. Montenegro has none of the problems with subsidies to industry that Serbia has, so it has a different path to follow, so it is right that the EU Foreign Ministers have recognised that with separate discussions.

On the future of the state union, no one can say what the wishes of the Montenegran people are, unless there is a referendum in 2006. I stressed to Prime Minister Djukanovic the view of the EU and of Her Majesty's Government of the importance of the maintenance of the state union. However, I got the distinct impression from almost everyone I spoke to in Montenegro that there is no great desire to continue the union with Serbia. Djukanovic hopes that a peaceful divorce can be negotiated.

Mr. Randall : Would it not be true to say that the results of the most recent referendum in Montenegro were split 50:50? It is strange to hear the hon. Gentleman saying that the majority of Montenegrins do not want the union with Serbia.

John Austin : My comment was that the majority of Montenegrins to whom I spoke expressed that view, including the Prime Minister of Montenegro and the Speaker of the Parliament. On what they thought the likely outcome of a referendum would be, their views differed, ranging from very close to 60:40. However, as we have seen recently in the north-east, predicting results is a dangerous business.

At the end of the day, Montenegro and Serbia will have to reach their own decisions. If they decide, whether by referendum or negotiation, to go their separate ways, we must accept their legitimate democratic wishes. That is not desirable, and I stress to
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Djukanovic the views of the European Union and our Government that the state union is the best mechanism for entry into the EU. However, in a democracy we have to listen to the will of the people.

3.31 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I welcome this debate and echo the Minister's comments on the important role that British armed forces, police and non-governmental organisations are playing in the region. There is a broad cross-party consensus on the UK's role and the way forward.

The region has a terrible history—other hon. Members have referred to that, so I will not do so in great detail—but it is vital for the United Kingdom and the European Union, and we have a special responsibility to do whatever possible to assist it. The conflict in the Balkans happened in our backyard. I felt, perhaps for the first time, anger and frustration at something happening so close to the UK. It involved people I knew: friends I visited when in Yugoslavia, who subsequently were in Croatia. One served in the Croatian army and was aware of some massacres that happened. As the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) said, those atrocities were carried out on both sides—Croat forces were involved in atrocities that my friend was aware of. We have a special responsibility to do what we can to ensure that peace and stability are restored to the region.

There are common objectives and areas for us to build on to achieve security, stability, democracy and prosperity in the region. There is not much doubt that the conflict in the Balkans has scarred Europe and remains a real concern. Several hon. Members have referred to the outbreak of violence in March when 19 people were killed. At the time, BBC news reports quoted a Human Rights Watch report stating that NATO peacekeepers and the police force had not co-ordinated their response to the violence that swept through the province. Does the Minister agree with that assessment? If so, is he aware of any measures implemented since to try to improve co-ordination and ensure that any similar event will be better dealt with?

Mr. Brazier : That question is closely related to my question on whether NATO is reaching across the divide in the ethnic balance when recruiting for the police force.

Tom Brake : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that the Minister will address both those points.

Again according to the BBC report, after that incident many people were left homeless. That was in March, so presumably they are no longer homeless. Will the Minister confirm that?

The scale of the international presence is a reminder of the region's fragility. In Macedonia, there are 200 police from the EU. In Kosovo, there are 3,500 police and 18,000 NATO peacekeepers. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, as other hon. Members have said, there is a force of 7,000 NATO troops, who may be replaced by EU troops by the end of this year. In Albania, there are the remnants of the NATO force from the Kosovo
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conflict. Clearly, there is still great instability and insecurity in the region, which requires substantial forces to achieve the desired stability.

Although territorial ambitions and ethnic tensions remain high, there is some hope and there are examples of progress. Albania and Croatia are involved in the NATO partnership for peace, which aims to forge permanent relationships between partner countries and NATO, and there is also the NATO membership action plan for Macedonia. So, positive moves are being made towards stability and security in the region.

Although our priorities must be to end the conflict and to establish stability and the rule of law, democracy is the next thing that we must tackle. The very different and carefully constructed arrangements that have been put in place in the various countries show how difficult it is to bring democracy to the region. We must strike a balance between realism, or what can be achieved, and the application of legitimate pressure to achieve what we would really like to be achieved.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a good example of that. For all its faults, the Dayton accord led to the Peace Implementation Council, which, by its very construction, demonstrates how complex the region is. The council, which is headed by my erstwhile leader, Lord Ashdown, comprises no fewer than 55 countries and agencies. They support the peace process by providing financial assistance or troops for the stabilisation force, or by directly running operations in the region.

As hon. Members will know, the rule of law is crucial in the post-conflict scenario and for much of the time it remains an issue. That is despite the fact that the region has had lots of practice, if I can put it that way, with elections. Although municipal elections have been held, they are a reminder that democracy is about more than elections. Civil society, human rights, a functioning bureaucracy, proper legal systems, pluralism and protection for minorities are all necessary, as are the recognition of obligations towards the international community and a positive response to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which hon. Members have mentioned. A quick glance at the region shows that there is much more work to be done on democracy, and many imperfections must still be dealt with.

I echo the points that hon. Members have made about the region's economies. Twenty years ago, the economic situation was relatively stable, albeit with hidden faults. Certain countries will have to put in many years' hard work before they can return to that situation, and the statistics confirm that. The central role of economic revitalisation was recognised after the Kosovo crisis. The EU stabilisation and association agreements are a positive way forward, and progress is being made by countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, which two years ago was declared to have completed the first stages of the EU road map. Its currency has achieved some stability and the World Bank has recognised that the country has moved from post-conflict to transition status. Less progress has been made in Albania, which still has problems with corruption and the rule of law. Negotiations are being held on the stabilisation and association agreements, however, and slow progress is being made.
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Croatia is a much better success story. There has been a step change in its co-operation with the ICTY. Slovenia, which is also a very good example in the region, acquired EU membership this year.

We broadly support the regional assistance plan set out by the Government, although the Minister will know that I wrote to him after his visit and as a result of a parliamentary question on the drop in aid to the region after 6 November. The impact of that drop is likely to be felt only in 2005–06, although some countries will receive up to 25 per cent. less funding than they had expected. Have any donors been identified who will fill the funding gap in 2005–06? What will happen to the planned projects that were to be funded by the Department for International Development? Are there contingency plans to address the shortfall?

The Minister's visit to the region was obviously very informative. As a result of what he saw, will he reconsider the funding that DFID provides and see whether there is a need to increase it, perhaps to pre-6 November 2003 levels?

The regional assistance plan set out clear terms for engagement for the region and established the range of assistance that has been offered in recent years. However, the plan makes it very clear that there is a lack of co-ordination among international donors, so I hope the Minister gives us more detail on how the Government intend to address that and on the role that DFID can play.

There is a need to harmonise and focus efforts through the EU. The EU aid programme is not always seen as the best distributor of development assistance, but it may still be the best way forward, given the wider political moves and the role of the EU in the region.

The Government's stated objectives are EU association policies and processes that recognise and support nationally owned, pro-poor development strategies and that work with other donors and partner Governments to agree and implement a common agenda for improved aid effectiveness in each country in the region. The UK Government's policy of active engagement in the region should take account of development concerns. We support that multilateral approach, which is responsive to the needs of the countries and takes account of their wider responsibilities to the international community and their aspirations for closer integration with the rest of Europe.

These are clearly very difficult times for the region. Progress is being made, albeit at a very slow rate, but we believe that the region is on the right track and that the UK Government are right to continue their constructive engagement there.

3.43 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): We are most fortunate to have a debate on this important subject. The United Kingdom, as the Minister rightly reminded us, has long taken an interest in the Balkans. When you and I first entered the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the debates were illumined by contributions from Fitzroy Maclean, on the Yugoslav side as it were, and Julian Amery, on the Albanian. The second world war saw the involvement of other personalities of stature such as Reginald Hibbert in Yugoslavia, Billy Maclean—who was also in the House—and David Smiley in Albania.
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The problem in recent years has been to stay ahead of the game. That was an implicit part of the speech of the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin). My honourable colleague, who worked so nobly in the Inter-Parliamentary Union, sought to inject a note of realism, pointing out that we were trying to maintain old structures that had outlived their usefulness.

Perhaps that is understandable for a region that has experienced three empires and a period of centralised communist federation in this century: the Ottoman empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the third reich, as well as Tito's Yugoslavia. It has endured a process of very rapid political and social change.

We must try to keep abreast of the realities on the ground. It is good that we have experts of the calibre of the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who is a distinguished Serbo-Croat scholar, to take part in the debate. Our Front-Bench spokesmen have made the debate much clearer, and I am glad of that.

However, I thought that the speech from my political neighbour, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), was perhaps somewhat sanitised and over-optimistic. The reports that I have heard from the west Balkans are not so sanguine as his speech, and the latest one, from Kosovo following the elections there and the boycott of the process by the Serbian community, spoke of continued persecution—that was the phrase that my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) used—of the Serb minority.

Therefore, while we applaud the work that Her Majesty's Government, the European Union and NATO are doing, we should be highly cautious about imagining that the stabilisation process can proceed without further setbacks like the one so painfully experienced in Kosovo in March. We need to do everything we can as parliamentarians to bring opinion formers and political leaders together across racial and national boundaries.

Of course, my colleague the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead has been doing just that through the IPU, and he has spoken of the conference in Montenegro that he attended. We do the same in the Assembly of the Western European Union and are according generous membership opportunities to the countries of the west Balkans. The Council of Europe, too, constantly monitors progress towards the democratic standards that we enjoin on the countries and peoples in the west Balkans. That is all to the good.

I am apprehensive, however, about the constantly repeated phrase "standards before status" in relation to Kosovo. I understand the EU's desire to set out clear objectives that have to be met before there can be any question of the interim Government of Kosovo acquiring permanent de jure status, but, of course, elected representatives deserve authority, and people, particularly those in the majority, become frustrated if those whom they elect to what they suppose to be power cannot take the decisions because they are second-guessed by the United Nations Interim Administration in Kosovo.
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Therefore, as the European Union high representative Javier Solana has realised, and as the EU made clear at the Thessaloniki summit in autumn 2003, it is necessary to move forward. A decision must be taken—I would say in the early part of next year—on the status of Kosovo. I cannot see any basis for making that decision other than self-determination for the people of Kosovo. What other principle will stand the test of time? What other basis will meet the needs of the majority? That is in accordance with all that we espouse in the United Kingdom. Do we not rest our case for sovereignty in the Falklands on self-determination? Do we not maintain the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on that basis? Unless someone can find a better and more durable formula, I would hope that the move towards Kosovo's ultimate status is made on the basis of self-determination.

Until that move is made, there can be no security in the western Balkans. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, no one has come up with any better formula than the Dayton agreement, nor do I think that anyone would wish to tinker or tamper with that formula. It is not ideal, but Bosnia and Herzegovina is a peculiar state. As the Romans would have said, it is supremely sui generis, as, to a lesser extent, is the Federal Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. As the Minister remarked, it is probably fortunate that the referendum failed and therefore the Ohrid agreement was not called into question. Kosovo, however, is so emotive for the Serbs, and so much the touchstone for all the military and political efforts made by the EU and the Euro-Atlantic community, that we must get it right.

Where do we begin? It is likely that self-determination based on a referendum no doubt carefully monitored and observed by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the Council of Europe and other interested parties—perhaps representatives from the Quintet—will lead to an independent state.

What should that state do and how should it behave? First, it must behave as a good neighbour towards neighbouring states. It must demonstrate respect for their sovereignty and their territorial integrity. In other words, it should be a state within its existing boundaries. I was struck by the historical allusion made by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, who pointed out that Kosovo was, to all intents and purposes, totally autonomous in Tito's time.

The EU's 1999 declaration spoke of Kosovo having autonomy within Yugoslavia. The significant phrase is "within Yugoslavia". Serbia will have to be persuaded that it is in its interests that the Kosovo question be finally defused. It is in Kosovo's interests to become a member of the EU and a member of partnership for peace, and that it should co-operate in the stability pact for south-eastern Europe. Kosovo must be a state where the rights of all citizens are respected and all their historic traditions are fully safeguarded and regarded as a common patrimony for all citizens. In other words, all citizens must be full citizens and all citizens must be equal under the law, with no discrimination of any kind between them.
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Kosovo must also be a state that plays its part in the war against terror. Hon. Members, particularly the two distinguished Front-Bench spokesmen, referred to the drugs problem, the serious unemployment problem in Kosovo and the risk of terrorism in the west Balkans. Kosovo must be part of the struggle against terror and the war against drugs.

Kosovo must also have a currency that makes sense in the modern world. Again, I was struck by the allusion made by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead to the progress that the Montenegrin economy has made. It is a modernising economy that uses the euro. That suits the Montenegrins, but retaining the Yugoslav dinar will not suit Kosovo, although retaining our own currency here in the United Kingdom suits us exceptionally well. Each according to his individual circumstances.

I conclude by saying that the approach must have the support of the United States; it should not be just a European Union approach. The Franco-German-Belgium-Luxembourg axis in other policy areas does not make me very happy, but I hope and trust that on this matter it sticks together and that the Greeks, too, understand that the resolution of the Kosovan problem is important for them. If that can be done, there is genuine hope, especially if the Russians can be kept on side and the Americans persuaded that a stabilised, independent Kosovo is in their interests because over time they will be able to reduce the NATO presence.

On that basis I could share some of the Minister's hopes and aspirations, but his optimism is a little premature at this stage, as Her Majesty's Government are still unwilling to grasp the nettle of the final political status of Kosovo—the sine qua non of progress.

3.56 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I did not want to be too gloomy, but having listened to the speeches, I fear that I will end up being like Banquo's ghost at the banquet.

The situation is far from the picture that has been painted. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) alluded to the fact that many years ago when I was a slim young man, I was lucky enough to study Serbo-Croat at university. That political influences have turned that language into three separate languages is an indication of the situation in the region. I have recently re-read some of the set books that I had to read as a student—thankfully they are now in translation—including, for example, books by the Nobel laureate, Ivo Andrich, who wrote about Bosnia. I recommend "Bridge Over the River Drina" to hon. Members. Bosnia in my student days was diverse; of course, it had the past that hon. Members have spoken of, and there were tensions between Serb and Croat, but Bosnia was a society that worked very well, by and large.

The Balkans are in a more dismal state now than they have been for a long time, and the European nations have not been entirely helpful. Sadly, one outcome is that a lot of people in the region, not only in Serbia, but certainly in Bosnia, Macedonia and Montenegro, probably look back at the days of Tito with nostalgia, which is a mistake, because his regime was far from happy.
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I am pleased that many hon. Members recognise that the situation is not quite what we hear it is. Regrettably, because of other political considerations, not least the recent events in Iraq, I have a feeling that Kosovo is being sidelined or even made out to be an example of intervention at its very best, when as we have heard in the debate, what happened there is unresolved. We have got ourselves into a position in which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood said, there is a state that is in effect a protectorate of the United Nations, NATO, the EU or whatever, and it is fundamental to the future of the whole area. There is no simple answer. However, I do not want to be too gloomy, and I pay tribute to the people who are trying to do something positive there.

I was fortunate enough earlier today to have a meeting with the Minister and to hear about his recent visit to the region. I went with Mr. Charles Storer of a charity called Hope and Aid Direct. Its motto sums up what I hope we are trying do, which is to take aid, not sides. Although I might sometimes be portrayed as being more pro-Serb, I certainly do not want to be considered in that way; I want the whole region to be considered fairly.

The situation in Serbia is very difficult. We can talk in this Chamber about all our aspirations for democratic and judicial reforms, but it is not that easy. It has taken centuries to get where we are today. As has been said, in historical terms, Serbia came out from the Turkish empire only in the 19th century. Today, the proliferation of political parties in Serbia makes it difficult to get anywhere. There are a vast number of jokes about how many political parties there are and how many people have to meet in a single room. We value the system that we have. The proliferation of many more parties would simply complicate matters. If we look at what is going on in Serbia, we can see that the situation there is impossible.

Let me return to the issue of Kosovo. I must reiterate that some of the picture that we have is of things getting better slowly, but what I have heard and what we know happened in March show that that is not the case. I am sure that people on all sides are trying hard, but we are talking about a country that has been devastated by war, is still suffering from poverty and underdevelopment and is being ignored, by and large, by the rest of the world. There is incredible polarisation, as we have seen. Now the pendulum has swung and the Serbs, the Roma and other ethnic groups are living in a virtual state of apartheid. I think that the situation is probably worse than apartheid, although I cannot comment on the situation as it was in South Africa, because I have no experience of it.

Mr. Brazier : As one who has been to Kosovo twice and who went to South Africa a number of times before the end of apartheid, I can assure my hon. Friend that the situation is much worse.

Mr. Randall : I do not want to get into that side of things—I make enough enemies as it is—but I think that what is going on is appalling. One lot of violence against one group leads to violence on the other side. Since June 1999, 2,013 Serbs and non-Albanians—some of them children—have disappeared. People do not know what their plight is. Albanians disappeared in that period too.
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We are talking about families. Those things strike at the heart of these people. Talk of reconciliation is a long way off. My hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood talked about Northern Ireland. There, history goes back an extremely long way. One cannot mention Cromwell in certain parts of Northern Ireland without being hissed at at best.

What can we do in Kosovo? I include Serbia in this, because it is a forgotten part of the Balkans. One thing we should be doing is improving people's economic position. If we do, they will begin to put aside their hatreds. It is poverty that breeds hatred and nationalism. I visited Northern Ireland a few years ago with a cross-party group. The leader of the Irish Labour party told me that his grandson had been asked, "Do you want Northern Ireland to become part of the Republic?" and that he had answered, "Well, how much would it cost?" It is as if the quality of people's lives means that such issues are not as important in today's world. We must therefore make a big effort to ensure that people in the region feel a lot better off.

Hon. Members have said that there was previously no poverty in some of the areas that we are discussing, but I would dispute that view. I walked around villages in all parts of Yugoslavia and I saw real poverty, but it was not the poverty of sadness, if I can put it like that. Now, there is not only material poverty, but a poverty in terms of people's feelings.

Kosovo is not the success that it is sometimes portrayed as. I wonder how many hon. Members realise that there was an earthquake in Kosovo in April 2002, in which five people died, 180 were injured and 6,000 roofs were destroyed. That has been forgotten; indeed, I cannot remember seeing it in the papers here or on the 24-hour news channels, despite the fact that they are always scratching around for something to talk about.

Infrastructure improvements must be made, but from reports that I have had from Mr. Storer and others in Kosovo, it seems that Government support is unfairly distributed. There are still empty shells everywhere. The Minister spoke about land mines in Bosnia, but what are we doing in Serbia and Kosovo about cluster bombs and the depleted uranium left behind after the NATO intervention? There are major power shutdowns daily.

The hospitals are poorly equipped, but I am not convinced that building a strong civil service is the answer. It might help once hospitals are up and running, but if I were asked whether I wanted a better civil service or a better hospital, I think I know what I would want. Of course, I am simplifying things, and I am sure that I will get into trouble, as I always do, but I am getting old and I do not care too much these days.

We have heard about the unemployment in Kosovo. How can we have any kind of decent state with such unemployment? There is also incredible widespread ethnic fear and tension. I asked the other day whether it was wise for the Serbs to boycott the elections. However, when they visit their cemeteries—the ones that have not been destroyed—they have to go in armoured convoys. It is strange that we should even ask why they think that voting in an election is not a priority and will not really mean anything. If we are to have elections, people must be able to walk to a polling station without having to be surrounded by armoured cars.
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People hardly have any food, and what they have is of poor quality. The collecting centres for internally displaced people are appalling. I visited one in southern Serbia last February, and I was appalled by what I saw. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) said, this is in our backyard in Europe. Away from the main areas of Pristina, some people, not just in Serb enclaves, have an awful existence. I am not sure that we are getting to the right people—I am not blaming the British Government because there is a whole European Union out there. Thank goodness for those NGOs that go out and help, but they are pulling out for a variety of reasons, such as frustration or because something has cropped up in another part of the world.

We must all ensure that we never forget what has happened in the Balkans, our part in creating it and our part in restoring faith there.

4.11 pm

Mr. Gareth Thomas : With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I want to respond to this extremely useful debate, which has refocused our attention on the western Balkans region, which, as a series of hon. Members from all parties have said, has disappeared from our media. Like other speakers, I deprecate that.

In the time available, I will try to answer many of the points raised. First, I say to my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), that I did not present a sanitised version of the situation. There are genuine reasons to be pleased about the progress made, for example the million refugees returning to Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, as I said, and as every other speaker today has mentioned, the fragility of the situation and the considerable economic and development challenges require the international community to maintain a focus on the western Balkans.

The hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) asked about the military role of NATO as against the role of EUFOR, the European Union force. After the transition, NATO will still have a role in the western Balkans. Rather than continuing to secure the region, it will focus on the hunt for war criminals and help to modernise and reform the local armed forces, for example by promoting ethnic integration. It will also play an as yet to be defined role in counter-terrorism. The UK will have a leading role in EUFOR. There will be close co-operation between EUFOR and NATO, so the hon. Gentleman can be more relaxed about his concerns.

Mr. Brazier : The Minister talked about an as yet to be defined counter-terrorism role. The fact remains that, however large the British involvement, there must be a single, clearly defined chain of command. It must be clear, not only who is responsible for what, but who is answerable to whom. There still seems to be a recipe for confusion.

Mr. Thomas : The hon. Gentleman has more experience than me on these matters, but the need for clarity about roles is well understood by the military—both NATO and EUFOR. I am sure that the issue will be dealt with.
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The hon. Gentleman also asked about the pay of the Kosovan police, and I will write to him on that.

On the ethnic mix question, we are working through the global conflict prevention pool on a series of initiatives in the region to promote ethnic mixes in the police force, the armed forces and the civil service.

Let me give as an example a policing project in southern Serbia, which has helped to improve local community and police relations. It is taking place in an ethnically mixed area. As well as building policing skills, it is helping to address community safety, one of the very issues that the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) mentioned as being of continuing importance for our focus.

The hon. Member for Canterbury also talked about refugees. One of the ways in which we have supported the Serbian Government has been through technical assistance—we have helped them to prepare a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. Because of the number of refugees and internally displaced people who have yet to be settled in Serbia, one of the key issues for the Serbian Government is how to deal with the poverty and the needs of those people. We have sought to support them in preparing a strategy to tackle the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the name change, and the American decision on Macedonia. I am aware of no immediate plans to make a corresponding gesture. He also alluded to the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I believe that he has misquoted him in the context of this debate. My right hon. Friend made it clear that there is a need to reform the way in which the EU delivers aid, and I share absolutely his desire to see more money going to low-income countries. However, we also need to ensure that assistance continues to go to the western Balkans. Europe could promote more loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and more loans and assistance from the European Investment Bank. That is precisely the sort of help with infrastructure projects that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) said was necessary.

I welcome the work of the Inter-Parliamentary Union—and my hon. Friend's role in its chair—and that of the Western European Union, to which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood alluded, in combating corruption and in the promotion of good governance, minority rights and respect for the ICTY. The sustained engagement of both those key parliamentary bodies with parliamentarians in the western Balkans is warmly to be welcomed.

I am grateful that my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead supports our regional assistance plan; he is right to focus on the continuing need for infrastructure development. In that respect, the role of the European Community, in particular the EBRD and the EIB, is particularly important. I hope that my hon. Friend will be reassured to hear that the EBRD invested some €959 million in south-east Europe in 2003, and has ambitious plans to further expand its lending and its western Balkans operations, in order to promote private sector development as well as the infrastructure development projects that he mentioned.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) asked whether, following my visit, I would be thinking about the level of our funding for the western Balkans. We need to consider our funding in the context of all the funding that goes to the region—it is one of the most aided parts of the world. We want to use our resources to help to make more effective the assistance that is being given by the EC and other donors, and by the World Bank. During my visit last week, I spoke to some of the donors, such as the United Nations Development Programme and the World Bank, about how we can improve donor co-ordination and the effectiveness of the international aid effort in the western Balkans.

The hon. Gentleman also asked me about people made homeless in Kosovo by the violence earlier in the year and whether they are still homeless. Some are still homeless, but the provisional institutions of self-government have actively contributed to the effort to rehouse those who have been homeless since the March riots.

As I said, the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood is right to counsel caution and say that the international community needs to remain engaged and to focus on the needs of the western Balkans. He is right that more responsibilities should be transferred from UNMIK to the people of Kosovo, in the form of the provisional institutions of self-government. One of the key issues that I discussed with Soren Jessen-Petersen, the new special representative, was his plan to accelerate that transfer, which I warmly welcome. As was rightly mentioned, the status of Kosovo arouses strong passions in the region. The principle of self-determination must of course be taken into account, but we need to try to build consensus on the future of Kosovo if it is not to be the destabilising force that it has been in the past.

I enjoyed the meeting that I had with the hon. Member for Uxbridge and the NGO Hope and Aid Direct, which has made an impressive contribution in the western Balkans. I hope that I will be able to provide further assistance to its efforts. The infrastructure challenges, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, are considerable. The EC is doing an important job to tackle those issues, through direct assistance and through the EBRD and the EIB. The choice is not between the civil service and the health service. A strong civil service is necessary for the western Balkans to continue developing, but so is a strong health service.

We have given considerable assistance to health services in the western Balkans at different times, but at present we think that we have a niche to help to develop the civil service. Other donors are investing considerable sums to assist health services, education and other services. One of the important things about co-ordinating work with other donors is recognising where problems are not being properly addressed and seeking to provide appropriate assistance. That is why we are focusing on the capacity of the civil service.

This has been an excellent debate, with strong contributions from both Government and Opposition Members. I warmly welcome the opportunity to hear other hon. Members' experience of the region. I hope that this debate ensures that the region will not forgotten in the House, but will start to generate the media attention that it continues to deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

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