Western Balkans

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 22nd March 2005.

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Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons) 11:00 am, 22nd March 2005

I am pleased to have been given the opportunity to raise this subject, which, unlike many others, will not be high on the list of issues in the run-up to the forthcoming election in the United Kingdom, so we can get away from the party politics that pervades too many of our debates at the moment.

First, I want to pay tribute to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which recently produced a report on developments in the western Balkans. Although it is something of a curate's egg, there are more good bits than bits that are not to my taste, and I certainly welcome the Committee's involvement. It is important that the UK and the rest of Europe take the future of the region very seriously, not only because it is in Europe, but because it holds the key to stability and peace in Europe and therefore must not be ignored.

As it happens, today is the sixth anniversary of the eve of the bombing of Yugoslavia and it is interesting to consider how far we have come since then. The region had already been in turmoil for some considerable time, but in many ways the bombing of Serbia—Yugoslavia as it was then called—was a turning point for it. I always make the point, and the Minister for Europe has heard me do so on many occasions, that history plays an important part in the region and is forgotten at our peril, but I want to be more positive and concentrate on what has been going on recently and what can be done in the future.

Some recent developments have been positive. I am delighted that the UK and the European Union are trying to be as even-handed as possible in the area. That has not always been apparent to some people, but recent insistence in the case of General Gotovina in Croatia and the indictment of the Kosovan Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, have shown that the west is trying to change the fact that too many people in Serbia and the diaspora feel that they are the only victims of what has happened. Also today, the President of Serbia and Montenegro, Mr. Svetozar Marovic, is visiting the UK again. I do not know what discussions he is having or with whom, but I hope that those diplomatic efforts will not go unrewarded.

I will not deal with the whole region, not only because of the lack of time, but because in recent years I have concentrated my efforts on several specific parts of this diverse region. I shall start by talking about Macedonia, which is an interesting part of that area of the world and, in many ways, as successful as any country there in implementing policies that the west would like. It is certainly keen to join the European family. Also, it has tried hard to implement the Ohrid agreement and has succeeded, despite the nervousness caused by a recent referendum that could have put that in grave jeopardy. Successive Governments have made every effort to ensure that the country is a model of integration in the Balkans.

In light of Macedonia's efforts—it has supported the coalition in Iraq and a member of its armed forces has even been killed over there—we sometimes need to give more support than mere words.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Shadow Minister (Trade and Industry) (Trade and Economic Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend agree that Greece could be more helpful in its relations with Macedonia and provide additional encouragement to its long-term ambition of joining the EU?

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

My hon. Friend pre-empts me. Greece is being helpful to Macedonia in many respects, certainly economically, which is to be welcomed. Other countries, including the UK, could help economically through business and bilateral arrangements, but the big problem with Greece is still the sticking point over the name of Macedonia. In most of our deliberations in the House and elsewhere, most people—even Ministers who normally have to be very wary about such things—will refer to the country as Macedonia, because that is its name. However, my hon. Friend may be aware that the Greeks, and therefore the EU, have insisted on the full title being the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. I am not sure whether Greece would like to be referred to as the former Ottoman province of Greece, or whether Finland would like to be called the former Russian province of Finland. They would not be altogether chuffed with that idea.

As in so many parts of the region, there are little nuances—the title of a country is more than a nuance, however—but it is about time we got past the problem with the name. After all, the United States, China and Russia have accepted the name of the country as Macedonia without the "former Yugoslav" bit tacked on. The UK has a wonderful opportunity, through our forthcoming presidency of the EU, to have a chat with the Greeks and try to make them see sense. I am not an expert on German politics, but I believe that the Bundestag, the lower House of the German Parliament, recently passed a resolution to that effect, so we might be able to find help and allies on the subject.

Unfortunately, there are signs that the problem with the name is becoming a bit like our problem with Gibraltar and Spain. Recently, I heard that a plane carrying the Macedonian Prime Minister to talks in Turkey was not allowed to go through Greek airspace because "Macedonia" was written on its side. One hears all sorts of stories in that region. That story came from an eminent source but, not having access to the Macedonian dailies, I cannot verify whether that happened, although I believe it did. If it did, the UK Government ought to have more than a quiet word with our colleagues in Athens, because I would be nervous if a problem over the title of a country got down to what we would all agree are childish levels. I do not think I will be going to Greece on my holidays in the immediate future, after that little diatribe.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

Although the Minister claims that plane-spotting would be an amply good pastime for me, one of my constituents did that, which did not help his summer holidays that year. Having been a bird watcher, I know the perils of walking around the Balkan countries with a pair of binoculars around my neck.

More seriously, I return to existing conditions in Serbia. Before the civil war, Serbia was not exactly at the forefront of economic success. It was doing quite well years ago when I was a student there, but it fell behind under successive Governments. In 1990, the income per capita was $2,850; now it is only a few hundred dollars. We can see what has happened to a large proportion of the population: unemployment is 38 per cent. and rising, and sadly, industrial production is down 50 per cent. compared with 1989.

I understand, and I know that the Minister will repeat, the insistence on the bringing to trial in The Hague of Mladic and Karadzic, and I know from speaking to members of the Government in Serbia that they are keen on that too. All I can say is that I would like to know whether the British Government or our allies—NATO or whatever—have firm evidence of where those people are. If I thought that the authorities had been given firm evidence and were unwilling to help, I would have less sympathy for them.

I remain open on that issue, which I know is very big in the country. The Serbs feel that they were not granted the same rights as the Iraqi people to try those who caused severe problems—problems is an understatement. The issue gets to the people there. They saw a further such example when there was no international tribunal in The Hague, or anywhere else, for the criminals who caused all the difficulties in Iraq.

I know that this is a big problem, but I hope that the British Government and others are not saying, "We want those people," if they have firm intelligence. If they can offer help on the ground with intelligence, I hope they are doing so. If they are not being helped by the authorities, I would certainly have a deal less sympathy for what is going on there.

That said, there is a severe humanitarian problem in Serbia and—albeit less so—in Montenegro. Of course, Kosovo is included in that, and it is sad that a number of people come to my surgeries in fear of returning to Kosovo because of action by the Kosovo Liberation Army. They feel that the army is still in control despite international efforts.

Kosovo is not the wonderful idyllic state that perhaps we sometimes want to think it is following our intervention there. In many ways, I presume, the indictment of the former Prime Minister of Kosovo reflects, without stirring up too many other problems, our obsession with Irish republicans. It becomes difficult to accept that they have given up military and criminal action, and we have seen in recent months that they have not given up what they say they have given up. Kosovo is like that, only more so.

A mere Back Bencher can possibly do a service by raising a matter continually. I cannot do the grand politics of the region, but I can raise the humanitarian problems that exist. This country was instrumental in making things worse by the bombing, however well intentioned the Government and the majority of people in this country—although I happened not to be one of them—thought the intervention would be. What worries me is the huge number of refugees living in Serbia: there are internally displaced people living in appalling conditions, but they are not the only ones who are important. Because of the economic state of the country, there is incredible poverty away from the major cities.

One of the problems is that people such as me tend to go to Belgrade when we visit and we see a café society that is still almost blossoming. It is a pleasant place, there is affluence and the shops are full of items, but if one goes a few miles away to villages that were never really developed anyway, one is back in an era that many people would be shocked to see in Europe today.

Indeed, I heard a report from someone who recently visited a hospital in Zemun, which is just outside Belgrade, on the other side of the river. The last of that hospital's cookers had packed up, so patients could not have any hot meals and it was down to a couple of volunteers to keep things going. However, Zemun is a major conurbation; it is really part of Belgrade. That that should happen anywhere in Europe—virtually in the capital city of that country—is a disgrace and we must do whatever we can to help.

Pensions and pensioners are one of the biggest problems. There have been masses of suicides because elderly folk cannot afford medication or, in many cases, food. I do not think that I am exaggerating: I really do think that there is a humanitarian disaster there, and we must do something. We owe it to those people not only because they are in Europe, so we should be doing something anyway, but because of the history—not just the recent history—and the fact that the Serbs have been our strong allies in the past.

Incredibly, the Serbs still have great respect for the British. This is the moment to show that we can and we shall help them in their hour of need—not just paternalistically by giving aid, but by treating them as equal partners. The future of that area lies in ensuring that it integrates within the European family. That is some way off, but we must give those countries hope.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office 11:18 am, 22nd March 2005

I am genuinely grateful to Mr. Randall for introducing the debate, because it allows the Government to place on the record in the House our current thinking on the western Balkans. I pay sincere tribute to him, as he has consistently brought to the House—in the form of parliamentary questions, oral questions, Adjournment debates and interventions in broader European debates—the issues of the western Balkans in general and of Serbia, to which he is greatly attached, in particular. He has done so very moderately, avoiding some of the polemic to which the region has given rise.

I entirely take the hon. Gentleman's point that the people of Serbia deserve a better deal, if not a new deal. For me, Belgrade is the natural capital of the western Balkans. The people of Serbia are cultivated, intelligent and skilled, and in every way have the potential to deliver enormous benefits to the European economy. No Government more than this one would want to see Serbia as anything other than a full member of the European family of nations. I welcome President Marovic's return visit here; his political business was done on his previous visit a couple of weeks ago. I am in regular and, I hope, friendly contact with other leaders in Belgrade, but it would be helpful if all Serbian elected politicians and leaders in Belgrade spoke with one voice on behalf of the Serb people.

It would also be helpful if Serbia moved forward with economic reconstruction. I refer hon. Members to the interesting article in today's Financial Times about the problem of investing in Serbia and, in particular, the difficulty of ensuring that land is available for investment. According to the Financial Times, great swathes of land are still held under state control, with no liberalisation of land ownership. That results in a paradox: Serbia is one of the poorest countries of Europe, but its housing is among the most expensive. So, there is much that the Serbs themselves can do. I have also had meetings with leading British multinationals to urge them to invest in Serbia and the region. For example, I would like to see direct, low-cost flights to Serbia, as we now have to Croatia. That would be a good step forward.

Unfortunately, there is the fundamental problem of coming to terms with what happened in the 1990s. The entire elected leadership must clearly say, urbi et orbi, that the indicted war criminals—not just the fugitives Karadzic and Mladic, but the generals whose whereabouts are known—must go to The Hague. We welcome some of the transfers, but I would like 2005 to be the year in which there is a real effort in Serbia, including the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to bring to an end the problem of sending indicted generals and leaders to The Hague.

One might wish that the tribunal process were different, but we cannot rewrite history. Honourable men have gone there, including Ramush Haradinaj, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, who immediately accepted his responsibilities when he was indicted and flew to The Hague without fuss. Others might care to follow his example. We would like 2005 to be the year when we make clear and definite progress in the western Balkans.

It is nearly two decades since Slobodan Milosevic made his infamous speech in Kosovo Polje. We all remember with shame the inability of European Governments in the early 1990s to rise to the challenge of stopping the murderous nationalism that was unleashed in that beautiful part of our common European home.

On Sunday, I took my children to see the film "Hotel Rwanda", and I know how often you have raised the issue of human rights in Zimbabwe, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It was horrifying to be reminded of how, 11 years ago, a British Government colluded with other European Governments and the United States to prevent the United Nations from backing its forces in Rwanda to stop the genocide. I recommend that all Members of the House take their children to see "Hotel Rwanda".

That happened in 1994, but a year later there was a genocidal attack on European citizens, when 8,000 were killed in cold blood at Srebrenica. They were killed because, like the Jews and Roma in the Nazi era, they belonged to the wrong religion or the wrong community. We all thought that the scapegoating of Jews and Gypsies had stopped in 1945. Well, Srebrenica proved us wrong. The United States had to intervene to impose the Dayton settlement, but four years later we saw waves of asylum seekers—I am sure that all Members of the House have had them in their constituency surgeries—fleeing Kosovo because of the brutality there. By then, at least, Britain had a new Government, who were not prepared to sit on their hands. We had decisive British leadership to put together a coalition that was not frightened to use force to deal with tyranny and terror.

That is history—the last century. Today, let us try to look forward, not back. This year, we have a chance to close the chapter on that lost decade and, in particular, to send a message to the men and women of Serbia that their talents and skills deserve a full future in a Serbia fully in Europe.

The same is true for Croatia. I regret that it was not possible last week for Croatia to begin talks on accession to the European Union. In my view, it is question of when, not if, a Croatian Minister sits in the European Council and Croatian MEPs take their place in the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Britain wants Croatia in the EU.

When I was made a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister four years ago, one of the first visits I undertook was to Zagreb. I asked the then Croatian Government to take immediate action to deal with the case of Ante Gotovina, the Croatian commander accused of serious war crimes by the international tribunal in The Hague. Alas, my entreaties fell on deaf ears, and they have done so every year since.

For four years, I have been repeating that message, and so have Ministers from other major European Governments. Alas, too many agents and officers in the Croatian state apparatus defied the authority of the elected Government and, far from co-operating in persuading Gotovina to report to the Hague, they colluded with him in evading both his and Croatia's responsibilities under the international rule of law. No one can join the EU on the basis of refusing to accept their responsibilities under the international rule of law.

Let me make this appeal through the House of Commons to General Gotovina. An officer of any rank in the army of any democratic state must accept the authority of the elected Government. An officer of any rank in the British Army, the American army or any European army who is charged with any crime in connection with his command has to answer to the Government.

The patriotic and honourable course for General Gotovina is to stop holding the Croatian nation to ransom and to report to The Hague. He will face a fair trial, his living conditions will be good and he will have full legal representation. If he surrenders voluntarily now, there is even the possibility of bail, although I must emphasise that that is a matter for the tribunal, not for any Government, and nor is it a question of negotiation between the tribunal and the accused. As a soldier, General Gotovina should do his last great patriotic duty by going to The Hague. I urge him to open the door to Croatia joining the EU by reporting to the international tribunal.

The same goes for Messrs. Mladic and Karadzic. We have sought to work with Serb authorities, but, in the end, it is Serbs who can track down and capture a person wanted in Serbia or the region of Serbian nationality. It is up to the Church and the communities to understand that Serbia's route to Europe lies through The Hague. We will continue to offer co-operation and officials, including from the Ministry of Defence, are seeking to work with the Serbian Government. The British Government want Serbia on the road to Europe, but not at the price of sweeping under the carpet the terrible crimes committed at Srebrenica 10 years ago.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge mentioned Macedonia, and I understand that the position is difficult, but he is slightly wrong, as the United Nations, NATO and other international bodies use the name attributed to Macedonia when it split from the former Yugoslavia more than a decade ago. This is a passionate issue in Macedonia and in northern Greece. In Macedonian northern Greece, 2.5 million Greeks see themselves as Macedonian. The name, for them, is a passionate issue. I am not a Solomon in the House of Commons or the Foreign Office to decide between Skopje and Athens. I know that talks are going on. In English, we say that a rose by any other name smells as sweet. I do not know whether that is a proverb in Greece or in Macedonia, but I urge Athens and Skopje to try to find a solution to the problem.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons)

I understand that there is a problem with the name, but will the Minister give an assurance about relaxing the visa regime? At the moment, Macedonian diplomats still have to get visas to come here. We are one of the few EU countries where they have to do that.

Photo of Denis MacShane Denis MacShane Minister of State (Europe), Foreign & Commonwealth Office

We take the view that all citizens from a country where we have a visa regime in place have to apply for visas. Obviously, diplomats accredited to the United Kingdom travel on a diplomatic passport. That is the normal position under the Vienna convention. I am happy to look into that, but where there are visa requirements for citizens, we are not, for obvious reasons, granting the right for anyone to obtain a British visa without going through the normal procedures.

I have not been able to deal with Kosovo, but there is a review procedure in that regard. If the hon. Gentleman and I are returned as MPs after the election, we may be able to discuss the issue in whatever positions we find ourselves. Again, I pay sincere and genuine tribute to him for how he brings these issues to the House. The presence of someone who is so interested, committed and sincere in his knowledge of the region represents a wonderful opportunity for the Government.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.