HL Deb 10 October 2000 vol 617 cc158-69

3.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now make a Statement on Serbia.

A remarkable democratic transformation is under way in Serbia. For 13 years Slobodan Milosevic dominated that country. He led its people into poverty and international isolation. In July he changed the federal constitution. He gambled that he would be able, once again, to count on the divisions among the opposition on propaganda and on intimidation to stay in power for many more years.

He was wrong. Almost all the opposition united behind a single candidate, Vojislav Kostunica. They presented the voters with a clear choice—co-operation with Europe or four more years of pariah status under Milosevic. They gave people hope that this time their votes could really count. On the day of voting they managed to expose Milosevic's cheating, and publicise quickly the scale of his defeat.

By manipulating the figures Milosevic tried to cling on. But the people of Serbia had had enough. They took to the streets in unprecedented numbers. They faced down the police, many of whom changed sides. They took their future in their own hands. They put their trust in their new leader, President Kostunica. We congratulate him and all his colleagues on their tremendous success.

We worked closely with members of the opposition, NGOs and the independent media in Serbia over the past year. We and our partners provided them with a wide range of practical support, including training, funding for election monitors and key items of equipment. Now we can work with them, and with their neighbours, to help build a stable and prosperous future for the FRY and the region. As a demonstration of our commitment to assist the new authorities in Belgrade, the EU's General Affairs Council yesterday agreed a package of measures. Except for a few controls targeted specifically at Milosevic and his close associates, EU sanctions imposed since 1998 are being lifted. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia will be able to benefit from the EU's new aid programme, CARDS, once this has been established, and from extended humanitarian aid programmes. Finance Ministers will work with the international financial institutions to consider how the FRY can be reintegrated as quickly as possible into the international financial community.

The Council invited the FRY to establish an EUFRY task force to look at how the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia might progress towards a stabilisation and association agreement, and invited the Commission to submit proposals on the extension to the FRY of the asymmetric trade preferences adopted by the 18th September GAC. The Council also asked the coordinator of the stability pact to present proposals to make it possible for the FRY to participate fully in that initiative too. Member states agreed they would all aim to re-establish or normalise their diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. For our part, we have already made clear to President Kostunica our interest in doing so as soon as possible.

Alongside our efforts with our EU partners, we will continue to work closely with the government of the United States on all issues relating to the Balkans. We greatly value Washington's role and commitment over many years to helping to resolve the problems of the Balkan region. We share a common objective—making the whole region an area of peace and stability, a full part of Europe in every sense. We will want to work closely with Russia, bilaterally and in the contact group.

We are still at the beginning of a process. Milosevic's rule has left a bitter legacy. The new authorities in Belgrade must now reach out to their neighbours, to start to rebuild trust. They must establish diplomatic relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina and support the Dayton peace agreement. They must settle important succession issues with the other former Yugoslavia states as part of the normal process of joining the United Nations and the international financial institutions. Within the FRY they will need to institute a dialogue with Montenegro with the aim of establishing a new constitutional settlement. And they will also need to think very carefully about how they can achieve a structured democratic dialogue with the Albanian community in Kosovo. This is now possible, for the first time ever. We look to Serbian and Albanian leaders alike to approach this task responsibly and creatively in a European spirit.

The new authorities must also accept their international obligations to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. We made clear earlier this year that we had similar expectations of the new government in Zagreb. To their credit, they have complied, despite political opposition. We must ask no less of the new authorities in Belgrade.

The past few days have marked a historic turning point for south-eastern Europe. The citizens of Serbia have begun to dismantle the criminal regime of Milosevic, and in return, as we promised we would, we have begun to dismantle the sanctions regime which affected their country. More than that, we have already embarked on a new road of regional and international co-operation. Her Majesty's Government are ready to work with the authorities in Belgrade to help them take forward economic and political reform. We welcome the Serbian people's choice of a genuine democrat and European as their leader, and we will move forward together towards their goal of full integration into Europe.

3.14 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for the noble Baroness's comprehensive Statement on the situation in Serbia and the Balkans. I want to make it clear straightaway that we share the Government's welcome for the fall of the dictator Milosevic, if it is his final fall, and for the lifting, or partial lifting, of sanctions by the Council of Ministers of the European Union. As the noble Baroness indicated, this is the culmination of a prolonged period of struggle which began way back with Slovenian independence and was followed by the Croatian battles, the hideous atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo and, now, the final protest from within Serbia against this monstrous man who has led the Serbian people through all this misery and bloodshed.

The task now is to anchor Serbia into modern Europe. Does the noble Baroness agree that at this stage the emphasis should be very much on practical help, some of which she has outlined, and that we would be wrong to rush in or shower the Serbians with money or with lectures on how to behave? If we did that, we would be making exactly the same mistake as was made in the case of Russia. A lot of half-baked economic advice was peddled to the Russians combined with an avalanche of cash to no good purpose at all. Can we please ensure that we avoid making that mistake?

Should we not be listening very carefully to what Mr Kostunica is saying? What he is saying needs to be precisely examined. He is saying that he has no love of superpowers, east or west. That is not surprising as his country was bombed by NATO and the Russians have been messing about and trying to influence internal politics. He does not raise the prospect of solving the problem of Kosovo. I noticed the noble Baroness's optimism, but I wonder how that will be done. It seems to remain an insoluble problem. Montenegro may be a little easier to handle, but that will be difficult too.

As to the European Union, this is a delicate task where we have to proceed with great caution. Would it not be wise for the Council of Ministers to assemble a new group to establish dialogue with Serbia in these early days in order to see which way it is prepared to move? Does she agree that Mr Solana's mission to Belgrade—he has done excellent work but he is bound to be a little compromised in view of his forward role in the bombing—is probably not the best grouping? Very few of us have much faith left in the European Commission's capacity to conduct foreign policy sensitively.

Does the Minister agree that the key needs now are that the people of Serbia get a free press and the free communication that the network age can bring, that the history of the past decade, in all its monstrosity, should be opened wide to the people of Serbia—their ignorance of what has been done in their name is enormous—and that in due course the war criminals, including Milosevic, should answer for their crimes, although perhaps that should be a little later down the line? Does she further agree that integrating Serbia in global financial reform is both important and difficult and raises vast complexities for the global financial system. It is not just a question of joining the EU but joining the global network.

Finally, will the noble Baroness bear in mind—I am sure that she will be reminding her colleagues—that this is a regional issue? Countries other than Serbia have suffered grievously as a result of Serbian expansionism and they, too, need help. Support and help should be aimed not only at Serbia, as it tries to bring forward its own political regeneration, but at all the other countries around that have suffered so grievously. What are the Government doing to make those aims a priority in the European Council of Ministers, as that is where the immediate task surely lies?

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps I may join the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, in congratulating the Minister on her Statement. However, I shall depart a little from the tone of his questions. I should say, first, that we on these Benches echo the congratulations of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others on the extraordinary courage shown by the Serbian people. It is worth remembering that many of them had no idea of the consequences that might follow their actions. This is a moment for celebration throughout the whole of Europe at what has been a remarkable expression of "people power".

Secondly, perhaps I may say—although I recognise that this will be a contentious remark—that many on these Benches believe that, despite some mistakes with tragic consequences, and the NATO bombing of Serbia, there is little doubt that Milosevic would still be in place if the Government had not had the courage, along with their NATO allies, to intervene in Kosovo. In many ways, this development represents a major justification of that intervention, with excellent consequences as regards the future of the whole of the continent of Europe.

Thirdly, I offer my congratulations, which I believe are appropriate, to Russia on its helpful role, after some early differences of opinion, in bringing about the decision made by Mr Milosevic finally to leave his post, albeit that he still hopes to hang on within the political scene.

I believe that the response of the European Union has been amazingly rapid. The General Affairs Council and the Commission deserve our unreserved congratulations on the line they have taken. I wish that other countries had acted with equal speed. In some cases—the United States comes to mind—they are still delaying a response. I am sure that that response will soon be forthcoming, even if not as speedy or generous as that of the European Union.

Having made those remarks, perhaps I may put two direct questions to the Minister. First, in the course of the Statement the Minister mentioned the Balkan stability pact and CARDS, the proposal for particular aid to be directed to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In the case of the stability pact, which seems to us an extremely constructive approach to the rebuilding of the former republic, can she tell the House whether representatives of Montenegro in particular could be involved in discussions about the pact? In many ways, the adoption of an economic approach to the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro may prove less contentious and more rewarding than immediately to try to address the constitutional issues. The same could be said, I believe—using a slightly different tone of voice—with regard to Kosovo.

Can the Minister also say whether immediate action will be taken to unblock the river Danube and to ensure that oil supplies reach Serbia? As Members of the House will recognise, nothing can equal an immediate indication of the appreciation of Europe for what has been done by the Serb people to consolidate them in their view that democracy is a very good idea.

My second question concerns the continuation of the limited sanctions with regard to the financial holdings of the former regime. Many on these Benches feel that this may be one of the more constructive ways to attempt to deal with what one might describe as "rogue governments", albeit not rogue states. More specifically, can the Minister comment on the statement made by Carla del Ponti, the chief prosecutor for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, as regards the 100 so-called Swiss funds which, she has claimed, could be recipients of illegal funds leaving the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to be used by Milosevic and his cronies? In relation to that, can she further comment on the £30 million said to have been transferred either to Russia or to China from the Milosevic family in an attempt to ensure that its future looks far more attractive than its record for one moment deserves?

I wish the former republic a very important and constructive role in the Balkans in the future. Once again, we on these Benches deeply welcome the Government's Statement.

3.24 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I warmly welcome the comments and congratulations offered by both the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford and the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby. I reiterate the words of the noble Baroness when she spoke of the extraordinary courage demonstrated by the Serbian people. Indeed, I agree with the comment she made to the effect that, had we not been robust in our intervention in Yugoslavia, these events would not have taken place.

Perhaps I may turn immediately to some of the matters raised by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. We agree that the emphasis should be laid on practical help and assistance. We are not rushing in. The assistance we have offered has been clearly focused. However, I respectfully suggest that the EU was right to move swiftly. The Serbian people had been told that the sanctions were directed towards the regime, not towards them. As the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, the people took their courage in both hands. They deserve to have that courage recognised. For that reason, we say that it was right and proper that the EU moved so swiftly in relation to the sanctions. We have joined in those developments. Indeed, it is good to see the nations of Europe acting together to the benefit of another partner in Europe.

As regards financial reform, of course such reform is necessary. When we move forward to the stability pact, it is right that the financial institutions and the way in which they operate will be matters of concern. In relation to regional issues, this change in Serbia will confer immediate benefits on the countries around Serbia. They, too, will feel the immediate and positive results affecting the whole of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Her partners will now feel a good deal more comfortable than they did while Mr Milosevic was in control.

Montenegro has already benefited. We know that her president, President Djukanovic—who had organised a boycott of the elections, which he considered to be illegitimate—has warmly welcomed the victory. It is now up to the governments in Belgrade and Podgorica to settle the details of their future relationship. This they are now trying to do.

The United Kingdom has supported the proposal of the European Commission to offer 20 million euros of exceptional financial assistance to Montenegro. This is now being considered by the European Parliament. The total amount made available to Montenegro by the EU since April 1998 is 82.7 million euros. Chris Patten recently announced that the amount allocated to Montenegro under the EU's OBNOVA Project 2000 will be doubled to 20 million euros, with a further 5 million euros to be made available for quick-start infrastructure projects. We are moving ahead on those issues. Furthermore, the EU has also provided technical assistance designed to help with economic reforms in key areas. In terms of supporting Montenegro, I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that, along with our European partners, we are doing a great deal to help them to move further.

As regards the river Danube, the House will know that much of the difficulty was caused by Milosevic himself being obstructive about this matter. We had provided 85 per cent of the money in relation to the restructuring project. We hope that that can now go ahead with greater speed, to the betterment of the position of the peoples of Yugoslavia.

Certain sanctions still remain in place in relation to the Milosevic regime. We have consulted with the new president and his new government to consider how those sanctions should best continue. Sanctions will continue, it is hoped, to limit the movements of Milosevic and his cohort as well as to prevent the movement of their funds. We think that a balance has been struck here. In many ways we have relieved the peoples of Yugoslavia from the sanctions which impinged on them, but we have left in place those which, it is hoped, will inure to the disadvantage of Milosevic and his cohort.

3.29 p.m.

Lord Roper

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that, apart from the help being provided by the European Union in relation to the new administration in Belgrade, the United Kingdom should consider what it can do to help on a bilateral level? I am thinking in particular of help in developing a post-communist public administration.

Does the Minister also agree that the words she spoke as regards the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia becoming a part of Europe in every sense means that the people in Belgrade can now look forward to eventual membership of the European Union?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we shall energetically consider on an ongoing basis the kind of assistance we can properly give to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In doing so, we shall obviously participate fully with the EU. The peoples of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should be able to look forward to the same opportunities for stability and integration in the long term as other peoples in the rest of Europe. They have seen all around them the benefits that accrue from democratic membership of the European family, and they have chosen to take a step which will enable them possibly to join that family in the future. We think that it was the right choice and the right step for them to have taken.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it would assist enormously our relationship with the new Serbia if compensation could now be offered to the civilian—I emphasise "civilian"—casualties of NATO bombing? We should remember that the new president of Serbia, the new president of Yugoslavia, has been highly critical of the NATO bombing campaign.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hear what my noble friend says. But it is important to remember what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, outlined—namely, that this beneficial change to the peoples of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia would not have occurred but for our actions. Therefore I am not able to indicate at this stage that there is any cause for us to change the position we have expressed in relation to what has flowed from those actions. We were right to take those actions. It was painful; it was difficult; we did not like it. But it was the only way, and we have been proven right.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn

My Lords, I, too, welcome the Government's Statement. I am sure that we all welcome the remarkable turn of events that we have witnessed in the past week.

I agree with the Minister's comments, but we need to do something to encourage the turn of events. Will the Government give further thought to the suggestion of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, of providing aid for clearing the Danube and ensuring that it works effectively? It is very important that Mr Kostunica sees benefits flowing at once to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and to Serbia as a result of these remarkable events. His position will be strengthened if the right kind of support is given from the West. It should not be seen as meddling but as rapid economic support. I hope that it is something which the Government, together with other nations of the European Community, will bring rapidly into effect.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with many of the noble Lord's comments. I should remind the House that the EU is funding already 85 per cent of the costs of clearing the Danube. Reconstruction needs must he carefully assessed before decisions can be taken on individual projects. Now that Milosevic is out of the way, we can continue with greater rapidity.

The United Kingdom and the EU already are helping Serbia. The EU will now look urgently at the aid that Serbia will need, but it is too early to put a figure on major reconstruction assistance. The first task is for the international financial institutions, at the request of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia authorities, to send a needs assessment mission. Once the new government has accepted its conclusions and is clearly committed to a programme of economic reform, a donor conference can be organised. The EU will have a key role to play in supporting reform within the existing financial perspective. The EU will continue to provide technical assistance.

The issue of aid is extremely important. The clearance of the Danube at Novi Sad remains a priority. The EU will be supporting the efforts of the Danube Commission states to get an early start to the work. Much can now be done. We should congratulate the Yugoslav people on making this change possible.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the Minister on the Statement in regard to the rehabilitation and repair of the infrastructure of Montenegro. In the course of my contacts with the leaders of that country over many years, it was clear to me that they never supported the Belgrade regime.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Montenegro has been in a very difficult position. One of the benefits of the changes in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is that the healing process can now begin. It is to be hoped that we can work together with the peoples of the Federal Republic to strengthen their country and to restore it to its previous good health.

Lord Richard

My Lords, it is a matter of some rejoicing that the people of Serbia have changed their government by democratic means. It is a matter of greater rejoicing that, from Ireland on the Atlantic as far as Russia, the whole of Europe is now governed by democratically elected governments. However, does my noble friend agree that we should not assume that the new government in Serbia will be nice, gentle, liberal and democratic? From what we know of it so far, it will be a Serbian nationalist government, albeit one that has been democratically elected. We should perhaps await the outcome of four tests. First, what will be the new government's attitude towards Kosovo? Secondly, what will happen between Serbia and Montenegro? Thirdly, what will happen with the Serbs in Bosnia, who have clearly been influenced in the past by events in Belgrade? And, fourthly, what will happen with Mr Milosevic and a possible criminal trial? We should apply those four tests and perhaps not be quite so euphoric. Although I welcome the fact that the changes have taken place democratically, we should wait a little while to see how things settle down.

Finally, can my noble friend say a word about the current level of United Kingdom diplomatic representation in Belgrade? What is happening there?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand my noble friend's caution. He is right to draw attention to those important issues. However, we should look first at what we know. We know that the new president did not agree with the Milosevic regime. We know that he used the democratic process through elections to gain power; and we know that he did so without the use of violence. All those are good things. Obviously we need to be cautious—we would be cautious with any new government—but that is why, as I hope I have made clear both in the Statement and in my comments, we are trying to work together in partnership with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The tests in relation to assessment of need will be dependent upon meeting standards that we all agree are appropriate. Therefore we should not besmirch this moment of joy by being too pessimistic about the future. We should look at what we know. We should be cautious about the way in which we plan the future, but this is a moment for joy—a moment which we hope will last for a long time.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell us if the European Union is committed to paying for all the clearing of the Danube and the rebuilding of its bridges now that the ridiculous objections of Milosevic have been withdrawn.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the European Union has already committed itself to providing 85 per cent of the money needed for this task. Milosevic obviously had to allow access and agree to various other issues, which he refused to do. That blockage has now been removed and the steps which need to be taken to clear the Danube can continue without further obstruction. It is right that that should be a priority. It will be a priority with the new government and, together with our EU partners, we shall do all we can to ensure that that work is carried out as speedily as possible.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, may I remind my noble friend that the new Serbia also has a tremendous problem in dealing with the 250,000 Serbs who were expelled from the Krajina in Croatia, as well as over 100,000 Serbs who have fled Kosovo and lost their homes since the events there? There is some reason to be very careful about what we say about telling the new Serbian government what their attitude should be. I hope that our approach will be generous in helping them to solve what are some very serious internal problems.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I reassure the House that the attitude adopted by Her Majesty's Government has been one of listening and working in partnership. From the moment the election took place, we were in contact with the new government in Belgrade. We have listened carefully to the requests that they have made. We are of the view that the new government are in the best position to identify the type and nature of the aid that they will need in order to complete their task. We shall do that with energy, and robustly, as I said earlier; but we shall do it also with a weather eye on the circumstances in which the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia finds itself. This a new beginning, but that beginning must be informed by what has gone on in the past.

Lord Acton

My Lords, what has been the response of the United States to these events?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the United States has certainly congratulated the new president and has welcomed the change. It is right to say that it has not as yet, to the best of my knowledge and belief, expressly offered any aid or any specific package. One would certainly hope that that would follow relatively speedily. We have set an example by what we in the European Union have done. As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, rightly said, the EU response has been swift and appropriate. Obviously, we invite others to follow our example.

Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede

My Lords, my noble friend spoke about a structured democratic dialogue with the Albanians in Kosovo. I was in Kosovo last week and spent some time visiting a number of installations. One thing that I learnt very clearly is that the Serb communities there feel extremely vulnerable. Many of them will feel more vulnerable now that Milosevic has gone. What can my noble friend say to members of that small community about the protection that they will receive—and, it is to be hoped, continue to receive—from the international community in terms of their commitment to maintaining their minority rights in Albanian Kosovo?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the establishment of democratic government in Belgrade opens the way to the beginning of a dialogue between Serbs and Albanians. We have no illusions that this will be easy, but we are committed to a multi-ethnic future for Kosovo. It is clear that Kosovo should have a high degree of autonomy. However, we are not in favour of independence—although, of course, nothing can be ruled out. If we had not stood up to Milosevic's repression in Kosovo, we should not be inviting President Kostunica to next summer's meeting of the EU heads of state and government. We have an opportunity for creative dialogue. The Serbians currently living in Kosovo will not be neglected and we shall be working with energy to make sure that there is a satisfactory conclusion for all the people of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, following upon the intervention of the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, could the European Union mission not at least have on its agenda the needs of citizens who were the victims of bomb damage? Why should this in any way condone any action by the NATO powers, which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said, was a necessary act?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, in all that Her Majesty's Government are doing to assist the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, we have the needs of its citizens in our sights. The restructuring of that country, the return to good governance and the ability to enjoy freedoms will all directly affect and meet the needs of the people of Yugoslavia. We hope that that will be a real compensation for the people of Yugoslavia, because they will, it is hoped, be able to enjoy the freedoms that we in many European countries enjoy.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am sorry to weary the House again, but I asked my noble friend about the level of diplomatic representation in Belgrade.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I beg my noble friend's pardon. It is right to say that we are hopeful of being able to restore diplomatic representation in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A request in relation to the matter either has been made, or will be made in the very short term.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that Mr Kostunica has called for reconciliation within Yugoslavia. I hope that he will not be put under too much pressure to do too much too soon. He already has an extremely difficult job in bringing all the strands of opinion and all the differences in Yugoslavia together in order to be able to rule effectively. I hope that my noble friend will take that into account and that she will ensure that her colleagues in the European Union also take it into account.

Will my noble friend agree that the marvellous events in Serbia last week had nothing to do with the bombing campaign? To suggest that they did is an insult to the Yugoslav people and to the Serbian people in particular? Will she further agree that what those people did was to ensure that the result of a democratic election was upheld and put into place? I hope that we are not going to suggest that this country and the European Union are intent on bombing people into providing the sort of government that they believe they should have.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

No, my Lords, it is clear that it has never been part of Her Majesty's Government's policy that people should be bombed in order to obtain the sort of government that we should like. However, we must accept the historical fact. The people of Serbia were oppressed and had a limited opportunity to express themselves. Everything we know indicates that they gained courage from the fact that other countries were willing to help and willing to express a view, and that Mr Milosevic would not go unchecked. That message must have given great courage to the people of Serbia: the courage to know that they, too, could stand up and say no—which is exactly what they did. They should be congratulated on doing so. But it would be nave and foolish to think that the bombing that took place in order to force Milosevic into withdrawal did not have a material effect on the events that followed.

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