U.S. to fund opposition to Milosevic

With protests growing, administration moves to lift ban on money

`Anxious to move back in'

Waiver would allow national endowment to return to Serbia

July 10, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With anti-government marches growing across Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration decided yesterday to begin quietly lifting its ban on federal money going directly to opposition groups in Serbia.

By next week, a waiver should be in place to allow the taxpayer-funded National Endowment for Democracy to begin channeling funds into Serbia for the first time since March, when the NATO bombing began and all U.S. aid to Yugoslavia was frozen.

No aid would go to President Slobodan Milosevic's regime.

The endowment will support independent media, human rights groups and political coalitions working to replace Milosevic's regime with a democratic Yugoslav government.

"We have been assured by the State Department that the waiver process will be put into place to allow money to be spent in Serbia," said Paul McCarthy, the endowment's program officer for Central and Eastern Europe. "It's a matter of days or at most a week."

The U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees U.S. aid overseas, expects to resume similar work shortly thereafter.

Donald L. Pressley, an assistant administrator at AID, said the agency plans to notify Congress on Monday that it intends to resume direct aid to groups inside Serbia. Congressional leaders would have two weeks to respond before the money begins to flow.

"We're anxious to move back in," Pressley said.

The flow of money is likely to begin as just a trickle, as Western agencies begin to re-establish their relationships with Serbian opposition groups -- relationships that were severely strained by NATO bombing. But pressure is mounting on the administration to do whatever it can to help opposition groups that have begun taking to the streets, the airwaves and the town councils of Serbia to vent their revulsion toward the Yugoslav leader.

Yesterday, two more cities, including Serbia's third-largest, Nis, passed declarations calling for Milosevic's resignation. Serbia's second-largest city, Novi Sad, had done so, as had the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Though the ground seems fertile for User.Event 7 was not expected here! change, administration officials warn that aiding opposition forces will be difficult after an air war that pounded Serbia and left many Yugoslavs bitter toward the West as well as toward their government.

Opposition leaders have been complaining for months that if the West had helped them in the winter of 1996 and 1997, when anti-Milosevic demonstrators took to the streets across Yugoslavia, Milosevic's government would have fallen and the Kosovo conflict would never have happened.

`Could have done more'

"It's clear we could have done a lot more than we did," conceded Ivo Daalder, a Balkans expert who served on the Clinton National Security Council at the time of the protests and is now with the Brookings Institution.

At the same time, opposition leaders are wary about appearing to ordinary Serbs to be pawns of a U.S. government that just pummeled their country.

Still, U.S. political leaders are eager not to be on the sidelines this time because they see a chance to usher in democratic change in Serbia and secure a lasting victory for NATO's first major war.

Sen. Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has proposed sending $100 million over the next two years to Serbia and Montenegro, Serbia's pro-Western partner in the Yugoslav federation, to promote democracy.

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is chairman of a House subcommittee on human rights, has introduced legislation to authorize spending $47 million in Serbia next year.

Pro-democracy interest groups in the United States have also begun urging President Clinton to send aid to anti-Milosevic municipal governments to help repair critical services that will be necessary as winter approaches.

`The support it needs'

"What we have to do is not try to control the opposition movement, but to make sure it has the kind of support it needs from the West," said Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. envoy to the Bosnian Federation who is now with the U.S. Institute for Peace, a think tank. "If we can find ways of helping with water and electrical supplies without giving the regime credit, we should."

Such aid, however, would be in direct violation of President Clinton's pledge that "not one penny" of U.S. money would go toward the rebuilding of Serbia so long as Milosevic remains in power. The administration insists that it will not budge from that condition. But U.S. officials hope to respond to humanitarian activists with other policy initiatives designed to hasten Milosevic's downfall.

Already, news has leaked of meetings between U.S. Balkans envoy Robert S. Gelbard and Serbian opposition leaders; a CIA effort to use computer hackers to siphon money from Milosevic's foreign bank accounts; and covert efforts to foment resentment within Yugoslavia's military over its conduct in the Kosovo conflict.

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