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EU Leaders Pledge $175 Million in Aid for Yugoslavia

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Europeans, Yugoslavia has been the land of shattered ambitions and unpleasant surprises. On Saturday, leaders of the European Union attempted a fresh start by welcoming new President Vojislav Kostunica into the fold and promising a multimillion-dollar package of emergency aid.

In his first trip abroad as Yugoslavia’s leader, Kostunica accepted an invitation to attend an informal gathering of 15 European Union heads of government in this French Atlantic resort. He flew in for only a working lunch at the casino here, but the symbolism was immense.

The EU leaders assembled in Biarritz sought to show that Yugoslavia without longtime nemesis Slobodan Milosevic in charge is rapidly being accepted by its continental neighbors and can count on their help.

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“It’s a very emotional moment to be here,” Kostunica told a news conference afterward. “This is confirmation of the fact that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro are--well, always have been--in Europe.”

“The Serbian people have stood in favor of the values we have in common, as if they were looking forward to the return of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia into the European family,” said French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, one of Kostunica’s official hosts.

At lunch, EU officials said, European Commission President Romano Prodi promised Kostunica $175 million in emergency aid for food, medicine and fuel for the coming winter. The expenditure is expected to be approved formally Wednesday by the European Parliament and the EU’s executive institutions.

Rapid assistance is considered essential to strengthen Kostunica, who came to power as street demonstrations toppled Milosevic earlier this month after an election that Kostunica was widely considered to have won. The new president still faces opposition from Milosevic loyalists, who control the government of Serbia, the bigger of Yugoslavia’s two republics.

Edward Llewellyn, a high-ranking European Union official, said recently that the EU is making haste “to show the [Serbian] people that their choice at the ballot box will have immediate effects.”

The financial challenges in rebuilding an infrastructure ruined by years of Milosevic’s crony capitalism and last year’s NATO bombing raids are daunting, and it is unclear how much of the burden the Europeans are willing to shoulder.

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Zoran Djindjic, a key Kostunica aide, estimated in a magazine interview published Wednesday that in the next six months alone, Serbs will need the equivalent of $436 million to buy heating oil, natural gas and other winter supplies.

“There are so many things I’m having on my mind,” Kostunica told reporters here, answering an American journalist in English about what his chief concerns were.

“I’m thinking what should come first, what should come second, and should the second come first, and the first come second.”

Earlier at the two-day Biarritz summit, Nicole Fontaine, president of the European Parliament, voiced a sentiment that few politicians here uttered openly--that sooner or later, it will be “essential” to try Milosevic, who has been indicted on war crimes charges.

Kostunica said Yugoslavia is under “an obligation” to cooperate with the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, but “it cannot be our first priority, our first step. We must improve our economy, improve the social situation.”

Western European leaders appeared perfectly happy to “integrate the time factor,” as Jospin put it, and let Kostunica focus on buttressing his authority and reviving the economy. “You don’t treat a country turning toward you the same way you’d treat a country turning away from you,” Jospin said.

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To show their support for Kostunica, European Union countries have already lifted a commercial air travel ban and oil blockade and invited the new president to an EU-Balkan summit Nov. 24 in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Beyond the warm words, the European Union is divided over long-term help to Yugoslavia, with countries such as Britain insisting on a comprehensive assessment of needs before big sums are doled out. The Brussels-based European Commission, the EU’s day-to-day executive, has pledged $2 billion in aid for 2001-06, but that money has not been approved by member states or the European Parliament.

And, history shows, even when aid for the Balkans is approved, the EU sometimes lets years pass before implementing it. For instance, $100 million in reconstruction assistance for Bosnia-Herzegovina was approved for 1999, but the latest official statistics show that less than $6 million has actually been disbursed.

The rapid rapprochement with Yugoslavia is being driven especially hard by the French, current holders of the EU presidency and advocates of an active, independent European foreign and defense policy in the face of the United States.

Ironically, throughout the 1990s, Yugoslavia was the very stage on which the grand ambitions for the European Union to grow from a trade bloc to a great power in its own right were dashed. Western Europe watched, virtually powerless, as wars engineered by Milosevic convulsed Croatia and Bosnia.

“The Europeans elevated Yugoslavia into a series of virility tests,” said Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London. “When we turned out not to be able to handle it, we rushed from conflict to conflict backing ridiculous little cease-fires that didn’t work. And at every stage, we looked at Milosevic as part of the solution, and not as part of the problem.”

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Although EU members progressively hardened their line, the turning points came in 1995 when President Clinton authorized the use of U.S. air power against Serbian forces in Bosnia and four years later as the U.S. spearheaded a NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia .

With Yugoslavia now desperate for aid and trade, the Europeans believe that their turn to exert greater influence over Yugoslav events has come. “We do have a trump to play,” Eyal said. “At the end of the day, the Europeans can bring Yugoslavia into the European Union. That is a gift the EU can make, and not the United States.”

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