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Western Balkans

11.1 am

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of developments in the western Balkans. Despite the fact that it is part of Europe and it is still in a volatile state, there are few opportunities to discuss these important developments in the main Chamber. That is why I am particularly grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing me to secure this short debate. However, I do not think that half an hour will be long enough to address all the issues. We will be able to touch on only certain parts of what I wish to concentrate on. We are discussing the western Balkans, but I will concentrate my comments on the area around Serbia, including Kosovo and Serbia and Montenegro, and also Macedonia.

However, before I start doing so, I shall make a plea to the Minister. There is an excellent organisation called the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe, which many Members have become involved with. Visiting groups of different sorts of people from central and eastern Europe, including the Balkans, have come over to this country and, similarly, delegations of British lawyers and so forth have travelled to countries in that area. That has been a worthwhile exercise, and I was disappointed recently to hear that the Government have decided to reduce the grant in aid for that association by a third, and then by two thirds for the next two financial years, and finally to end it in March 2008.

I understand that there is always a need for economies and for ensuring that money is well spent. However, I have been involved with some of the programmes—I have seen them in operation both in this country and elsewhere—and I feel that the association is doing important work. I urge the Minister to go back to his masters and plead its case. In respect of the area we are discussing, the sort of interaction the association provides is very important, not only in allowing other people to understand the complexities involved, but in trying somehow to work our way through what is a very tangled web in respect of the Balkan area.

Recent events have brought the area back into the headlines. The most notable of them was the death in custody of Slobodan Milosevic. I remember a debate of a few years ago with the then Member for Halifax, Alice Mahon, who, along with me, was a member of the all-party group on Serbia and Montenegro. We discussed the problems of The Hague tribunal, such as the fact that the process was going on for a long time and that Slobodan Milosevic's health meant that it might end with him dying in custody. Although his death might in    many respects close a chapter in that area, unfortunately, if the circumstances are not handled correctly, it will lead to all sorts of new conspiracy theories in an area where conspiracy theories abound. In particular, it will raise new questions for the Serbs about how they have been treated.

In saying that, I am not making any judgments about the process. However, as I said at the time, we should look at what is happening in Iraq. The Iraqis are being allowed to deal with the case of Saddam Hussein. I still find it strange that Milosevic and others were taken off to The Hague, instead of Serbia being allowed to deal with things. I have a feeling that that might become a
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slight problem in the future. I hope not; I hope that the death of Milosevic will to some extent allow the area to move on, but I am slightly fearful.

The Minister knows that, and it will become clear from some of my comments during this debate. There are other trouble spots around the world—such as in Northern Ireland, which is not far from home—where history runs very deep. It is difficult to separate the history, the legends, the traditions and so forth from modern peace processes.

The most important issue for the area under discussion is probably the status of Kosovo, but there will also be a referendum in May in which Montenegro will decide whether it wants to carry on with co-existence—with Serbia and Montenegro as a country. It seems that the mood has changed somewhat; Montenegro may well opt for separation; I will not say secession, because they were two republics originally, and, going back further, two kingdoms.

That has been highlighted in a slightly trivial way by the problem the two areas have had over the Eurovision song contest; that has been reported in the newspapers. They could not even agree on who would represent them because national feelings were running so high. I believe that, in the end, they have pulled out of this year's contest, and that they will not be in for some time while they sort things out. That is not of the greatest import, but that no agreement can be found on something like that highlights the problems that the countries face, as well as those facing the diplomats of other nations who are trying to understand what is going on. These problems are incredibly deep-rooted.

I used to go around the Balkans a lot and at that time, strangely enough, Montenegro and Serbia regarded themselves very much as twins and were fiercely proud of each other. It is a great shame that things have now got to this stage. Montenegro uses the euro as its currency, and the dinar is still used in Serbia, so ostensibly they are one country using two different currencies. I think there are also still different customs tariffs.

I should like to know from the Minister what the Government's view is. I remember that when I used to go around that region a lot—even at the height of the problems, when Montenegro felt that it was being somewhat ostracised because of its associations with what was then seen as a pariah state—the Government's view was that they should try to stick together. Is that still the case? I would be interested to know. It is not for me to interfere in that, but we have to tackle that issue. Ultimately, if all the countries in that area achieve the status of membership of the European Union, that may solve the problem, but I am afraid that that is a long way off for a lot of them.

Bearing in mind the time, I shall now concentrate on the current talks and discussions on the final status of Kosovo. That is obviously a very emotional subject for all parties involved and if I thought there was an easy answer to the situation, I would be the first to offer it to Governments. The pendulum in Kosovo has swung the other way: now it is the Serbs who feel very much at the wrong end of an apartheid system.
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The Serbs feel, perhaps as a result of the way that western Governments are talking, that there is a certain inevitability about Kosovo being granted independence. Mr. John Sawers, the political director of the Foreign Office, stated on 6 February that in the end Kosovo will be "independent". That was possibly not a wise thing to say and it rather prejudges the discussions. It might be an opinion but it is not a very sane thing to say at the moment. It tends only to inflame the situation.

Without giving a long history lesson, Kosovo to the Serbs and Serbia is rather like—some would say—Jerusalem is to Israel, but that would get us into a whole different ball game. In terms of England—I could think of somewhere in Scotland, but I shall stick to England if it is all right with you, Mr. Weir—it would be like Canterbury and Kent, having lost their English majority population in 300 or 400 years' time, becoming an independent area, with spiritual parts of the nation's soul such as Canterbury cathedral and the site of the battle of Hastings being taken away. I say that because we have to understand that the final resolution of the situation will be extremely delicate, to say the least.

The Serb minority in Kosovo are deeply concerned about what is happening to their heritage. Orthodox churches, monasteries and cemeteries are being destroyed. It is tragic; I have seen pictures of 15th and 16th century places that I visited 20 years ago that have been burnt down and destroyed in the terrible religious and nationalistic fury that has taken place. I have grave concerns that the perpetrators of those actions have not been caught. KFOR is seemingly powerless—although it represents the best diplomatic way to prevent a lot of what is happening—and that only stokes the fires.

If we do not have a fair and equitable solution, we will only make more problems for ourselves. We do not need a history lesson to remember what happened in Germany after the first world war, when there were feelings of injustice at the peace settlement. History is littered with such examples. Whatever might happen in the immediate aftermath, if we are not careful we will leave an open sore, so I urge the British Government and all the others to tread very carefully. They should not try to get rid of what is a very difficult situation. I do not think that the west helped by its intervention, but that is in the past and I am trying to move on. However, we have to be very careful; I have already given a couple of examples of how deep rooted the nationalism is.

If we are not careful, we shall store up more problems for ourselves, so I urge the British Government to ensure that the discussions going on are not prejudged. Statements should not come out that seem to favour one side or the other. Because there are precious few in this Parliament who understand the situation and it is sometimes difficult to be non-partisan on the matter, I hope that the Foreign Office will send a few MPs who do not know anything about the area, and are thus neutral and fresh to the subject, to talk to people in Belgrade, Pristina, Skopje and Tirana, in order to find out exactly what people think.

I have one final point, which will not have escaped the Foreign Office. If Kosovo became an independent state—I do not question whether that is right or wrong, or whether such a state is viable—a precedent for all sorts of other places will be set. President Putin already indicated earlier this year that the status of places such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Caucasus area
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might have to be reviewed. Countries such as Macedonia, which are working incredibly hard and have done almost everything asked of them, are nervous because the boundaries have not been entirely defined. The Albanian Foreign Minister said recently that he could not guarantee that borders are fully defined. I do not know whether he has rowed back from that, or whether it was a misquote. I do not want to stir up the situation any more.

However, a whole load of problems are involved. In that area, we have Republika Srpska and what has gone on in Bosnia. If we start interfering with the boundaries, we shall open up an incredible problem, and return to both the problems of recent history and those that have existed for a longer time. I want to hear what the Minister says, so I conclude my remarks there.

11.17 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander) : I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) on securing this important debate and I commend him on his evident longstanding commitment to, and understanding of, the region. Indeed, although I am not in complete agreement with the points he raised, I have no doubt that our debates in this place are enriched by the sort of depth of knowledge and understanding exhibited during today's debate.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there have been a number of recent, significant events that have affected the countries of the western Balkans, from the beginning of the process to determine Kosovo's final status, to the death of Milosevic, to the remarkable agreement in Bosnia on the first changes to their constitution since the end of the war in 1995. The latter is in part the legacy of Lord Ashdown, who departed Bosnia as high representative in January this year, and his tireless efforts to transform Bosnia into a functioning state with the prospects of EU and NATO integration within reach. I hope that we can find common accord in paying tribute to the efforts of Lord Ashdown and his successes in recent years in Bosnia.

Before moving on to some of the substantive points raised, I shall first deal with the issue of the British Association for Central and Eastern Europe, which was put to me directly by the hon. Gentleman at the beginning of his speech. I am very familiar with the subject, having had correspondence from BACEE on several occasions, not least from its chairman, Lord Radice, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we support the continuing work of BACEE in this part of the world. Indeed, by a coincidence of timing, I understand that officials from the Foreign Office are briefing members of BACEE as we speak.

On the point of funding put to me by the hon. Gentleman, there will be a significant alteration to BACEE's funding in the years to come, but for the record, I emphasise that that in no way diminishes the importance of the work that BACEE can do through securing other income streams in the future, and that situation is not unique to BACEE. Other organisations that previously were directly funded through a block grant from the Foreign Office continue to do important work while the Foreign Office reallocates resources according to its strategic priorities. There is an ongoing dialogue between the Foreign Office and BACEE which
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I hope will continue as BACEE makes the important transition to being a different kind of organisation, but one that will be equally capable of meeting the important needs of that part of the world.

As the hon. Gentleman said at the conclusion of his remarks, we have limited time. Therefore, I shall not attempt to cover all the issues affecting the western Balkans in the time available today. Instead, I would like to concentrate on the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised: Kosovo and Montenegro, and the death of Milosevic and the wider impact on the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

To set the context for this discussion, 2005 was an extremely successful year for United Kingdom policy in the Balkans. A key objective of our European Union presidency was to ensure that the whole region embedded its relationship with the EU. Under our presidency in the second half of last year, the EU opened accession negotiations with Croatia on 3 October and declared Macedonia a candidate for membership of the EU. Bosnia and Serbia and Montenegro started negotiations for stabilisation and association agreements, and the Kosovo final status talks were launched in November.

Even more extraordinarily, after a full 10 years of failure by the Bosnian and Serbian authorities to transfer any war criminals to the tribunal, 22 indictees were delivered to The Hague in 2005, although Mladic and Karadzic, the two architects of Bosnia's policy of ethnic cleansing, remain at large. UK leadership in the contact group, the United Nations, NATO and the EU was vital to those achievements, as was the prominent role played by our diplomatic posts in the region—a group of individuals and institutions to whom I am happy to pay tribute this morning.

The process to determine Kosovo's final status as envisaged in UN Security Council resolution 1244 which ended the war in 1999 is now under way. This was one of the key issues in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Martti Ahtisaari, the UN status envoy, is leading the process, and he enjoys the Government's fullest support. Settlement of Kosovo's status is one of the last pieces of unfinished business resulting from the violent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The other is the tribunal, which I shall discuss in a moment. Any settlement must be sustainable and fair, and provide effective guarantees for Kosovo's minority communities.

The contact group remains strongly engaged in the final status discussions. The statement issued by the contact group Foreign Ministers at a meeting in London on 31 January injected renewed political support for Martti Ahtisaari. It made it clear that all possible efforts should be made to achieve a negotiated settlement in 2006. We will spare no effort to work towards that goal. However, such a settlement must take into account the views of the people of Kosovo, the overwhelming majority of which favour independence from Serbia and Montenegro. That reality cannot be ignored. The past disastrous policies in Serbia lie at the heart of the problems that we confront in Kosovo now.

Mr. Randall : I am interested in what the Minister is saying, and I do not want to stop him in mid-flow unnecessarily. What process is there to gauge the
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opinion of those inhabitants of Kosovo who now live outside its boundaries? I am thinking of the refugees and internally displaced persons who live in Serbia and, to some extent, in Montenegro.

Mr. Alexander : I had the opportunity to travel to Kosovo in September last year, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that internally displaced people feature prominently in the wider discussions that are taking place not just in Kosovo but beyond it. I would be happy to write to him and set out in some detail the process for the final status talks.

Let me return to the earlier substantive point that was made in respect of the remarks of the political director in the Foreign Office, and the UK policy towards Kosovo's final status. The UK continues to believe that independence is an option to be considered. Indeed, some commentators argue that it is the only option that can bring long-term peace and security to the region. However, the UK also believes that any settlement must actively promote multi-ethnicity in Kosovo, provide a safe and secure environment for all Kosovo's minorities, particularly the Kosovar Serbs, and promote reconciliation in the region. We believe that that kind of settlement can be made to work for the benefit of all.

In 2006, political leaders in Pristina and Belgrade have a genuine opportunity to reinforce the European perspective to which they ultimately aspire. For too long, the legacies of the past have hindered the prospects for stability and security in the western Balkans. Political courage and vision will be necessary to move the region forward, but the UK stands ready to support politicians who lead the effort. We are at an important stage in the final status process. The recent pronouncements of the contact group make clear the importance of continuing to make progress on the final status discussions, and I remain optimistic that, through that process, we can find a way forward.

Another key issue is the death of Milosevic and the wider implications for the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic's death is a blow to regional reconciliation, to the tribunal and to international justice. His trial was key to helping the region to understand and come to terms with the tragic events of the 1990s. With his death, the victims of the Balkan wars have been robbed of the chance to see him finally face justice. Now, more than ever, Serbia must deliver on their commitments to arrest Mladic and Karadzic.

Mr. Randall : I am interested in what the Minister is saying. If, as the Minister says, the death of Milosevic has robbed people of an opportunity, why did The Hague refuse proper medical attention for Mr. Milosevic? Presumably, that has not helped them.

Mr. Alexander : What certainly does not help the debate is some of the speculation that has followed the death of Milosevic. I believe that the hon. Gentleman
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will understand if I am cautious in my remarks. I assure him that Milosevic's health was monitored carefully by the tribunal. Milosevic received medical treatment at The Hague, and we are confident that the tribunal's decision was taken on the basis of medical evidence. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and place in the Library a copy of my letter, which will set out the UK Government's understanding of the treatment that was received. It ill serves the interests of reconciliation in the region if rumours take the place of truth.

We have full confidence in the work of the tribunal. It has tried 61 cases to date, and a similar number are still in the pipeline. The tribunal is independent and has judges from a variety of countries. Cases are brought and judged on the basis of evidence, and have been brought against all ethnic groups in the region. The President announced a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Milosevic, the results of which will be known in due course.

The UK wants a strategic partnership with Serbia, but first Serbia needs to understand that there is no short cut to EU or NATO membership. Serbia must meet its obligations to the tribunal, notably by delivering Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to The Hague, and adopt a constructive approach to Kosovo, Bosnia and a potentially independent Montenegro. I hope that the death of Milosevic will unlock Serbia's self-imposed isolation by helping it to come to terms with the past and to look forward to a future within the wider European community.

I recognise that Serbia has made real progress—after all, it was through public demonstrations that Milosevic fell from power—but Serbia's politicians now must lead their people by charting a political vision that will ultimately lead to integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. We remain ready to help the Serbian Government and people attain those goals.

On Montenegro, we are well served by outstanding diplomats in the Foreign Office, but I fear that I am able to shed little light on the Eurovision song contest, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The referendum on Montenegro's independence from Serbia is scheduled for 21 May. We welcome the agreement that was reached between the Government and the Opposition in Montenegro on the standards for the referendum, in particular in respect of the 55 per cent. qualified majority needed for Montenegro to become an independent state. We commend the work of High Representative Javier Solana and his personal envoy, Miroslav Lajcak, who played a key role in helping to broker that important agreement.

It is too early to say what might follow or how an independent Montenegro would develop, but its behaviour during and beyond the referendum process would naturally affect the international community's stance—

11.30 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o'clock.

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