The wrong blueprint for Baghdad

The Balkans are hailed as proof that western intervention improves native lives. Wrong, reports Mark

The world's attention has shifted from the Balkans to Baghdad, but anyone tempted to trust President Bush's optimistic scenario for a future "prosperous and free" Iraq with "no more killings" should consider the real fate of Serbs, Albanians and everyone else in the former Yugoslavia since Nato forces intervened there.

The assassination of the Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic outside his office in Belgrade on 12 March was the most dramatic symptom of the continuing decay and disorder besetting the region. What was most striking about the Serbian public's reaction to a mafia hit squad taking out their prime minister was the way they shrugged it off as just another in a long list of murders on the streets of Belgrade.

Although western leaders like to boast that it was Nato's precision bombing and awesome firepower which shattered Slobodan Milosevic's regime, the dirty secret of so much of the new world order's success has been the cynical use of the underworld of corrupt post-communist states.

Djindjic had been the west's favoured son in Serbia, heavily promoted by our secret services who turned a blind eye to the unsavoury underworld company he kept because he had been able to mobilise Belgrade's mob to topple Milosevic.

A similar scenario is already under way in Iraq, where a motley crew of former common criminals and Saddam Hussein's torturers who fell out of favour with him are being groomed to succeed in Baghdad. No doubt, a suave English-speaking face will smile for the cameras when George Bush and Tony Blair come to visit liberated Iraq amid the adulation of the grateful newly free, but what happens after the cheering stops?

That's when the real tragedy of the new world order begins. Any enthusiasm for change, even from an existing grim situation, may well be short-lived if the Balkans experience is anything to go by.

Bombs destroy and terrify, but the kind of postwar "reforms" mandated by the west breed a much more insidious despair and depression. The most dramatic examples of economic and social collapse are in the former Yugoslavia. Blair quotes Kosovo as a success story, justifying his confidence in humanitarian adventures but, on the ground, Kosovo almost four years on looks very different from the official Westminster version.

Despite the presence of tens of thousands of western troops and the huge expense of UN administration, neither in Kosovo nor Bosnia has new life been injected into the economy. The much-vaunted "humanitarian imperialism" has not produced a new Marshall Plan.

Djindjic's last plaintive interview before his murder revealed that of all the billions promised to regenerate Serbia's economy only $500m had come; the rest went to western banks to repay debts incurred by Tito long ago. Aware of his own unpopularity as prices rose and unemployment hit 10 per cent of the population (800,000 out of eight million), Djindjic admitted that "Serbs live like Africans".

The message is that the billions promised in reconstruction aid either do not materialise or are spent on the military infrastructure of the western garrison. Firms such as Dick Cheney's Halliburton and the new Labour crony companies here get contracts (at the expense of taxpayers in the west), but locals in the liberated zone see little benefit.

Take electricity in Kosovo, for example. At first, power shortages were blamed on sabotage of the Obilic generating plant by the departing Serbs. But anyone could see that its chimneys pumped out filth into the sky soon after the fighting stopped in 1999, so something was going on there. But power cuts are still the norm: Albanians in the state get two, at most four, hours of electricity a day.

Everyone there knows that certain EU officials responsible for the Kosovo electricity supply have been implicated in a scam to sell locally generated electricity to wealthier consumers up north. Albanians blame Serbia - but Serbs, too, suffer power cuts, and blame associates of the murdered Djindjic for denying them power in order to make money selling it to Germany and Austria.

Whoever profits from the racket, the post-Milosevic former Yugoslavia is getting poorer and more and more people are looking to flee abroad. Even David Blunkett's figures show many more Kosovars claimed asylum in Britain after Nato troops drove out the Serbs than before.

Throughout the Balkans, people's lives are getting worse, and only statistical sleights of hand worthy of Stalin disguise the depths of decay. As the pie shrinks, and western aid dries up in anticipation of new recipients elsewhere, the ruthless mafia-style struggle over what is left gets worse.

Looking from Belgrade to Baghdad, it seems a safe bet that after an American victory oil will flow freely westwards - but so will the refugees.

Just as millions of Serbs were bitterly disillusioned that the fall of Milosevic did not mark the end of a downward spiral into poverty and mafia domination of a shrinking economy, so, after a brief euphoria, Iraqis will discover that the end of Saddam's regime and more than a decade of bombing and sanctions will not necessarily mark an upswing in their lives.

Led by two born-again Christians, it is hardly surprising that the new world order's motto seems to be "the poor you will have with you always". It looks as if the victory of the Blair-Bush axis will spread postwar despair and depopulation from Belgrade to Baghdad. A victory worthy of the name would require a very different policy once the bombing stops.

The writer is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford