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Re-building the Balkans will be tougher than we thought

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There is an urgent need for a word of hope or encouragement for architects who are still looking forward to the £20 billion 'wall of money' that was supposed to fire the starting gun for the reconstruction of the former Yugoslavia. None, however, seems to be on the way. Disappointing that, because the breezy manner in which the bomb damage inflicted on Serbia was described during the war suggested that Slobbo had only to throw in the towel for nato to put its video games into reverse. Then all the bridges would reconstruct themselves, the Belgrade TV station would come back on air, and all those self-build houses in their glorious Sound of Music landscape would ring to the songs of jolly peasants.

Alas, if truth is the first casualty of war, international aid for reconstruction seems to be the second. Kosovo, a place that not long ago was the centre of the world, has vanished from the map. The news clips of vacuous young Kosovars drinking in the reopened bars of Pristina that succeeded the clips of petulant Serbs trying not very hard to simulate political unrest in Belgrade have gone. Now all that is left is the frustratingly unsuccessful search for the fabled 10,000-body mass grave. Of the promised heavy-lifting gear, the fleets of trucks, the diggers and dumpers and the army of international volunteers to help in the great rebuilding programme, there is not a sign. The nearest we get on the news is an old Kosovar, nailing a sheet of what looks like ex-Serbian McDonald's siding over a hole in his roof, or Belgrade's jeunesse doree swimming in the Danube opposite a spectacularly collapsed bridge.

One has the feeling that, for Kosovo, the end of the war has meant a rapid winding down of media interest; and the winding down of media interest has brought an end to the talk of reconstruction investment that underwrote the war. This is certainly the message brought back by a consulting engineer on the British government's Kosovo Task Force. '£20 billion? Forget it,' he reportedly said, in so many words. Apparently no-one is going to get rich rebuilding in Kosovo. The only real prospects lie in Serbia itself, where a better class of infrastructural and architectural damage was inflicted. But even here we are only talking Jubilee Line Extension figures. And besides, there is a minor inconvenience about in the shape of the arch-villain Slobodan Milosevic, still in control.

The only reliable way to gauge the prospects for war damage repair, not just in Kosovo or Serbia but in the Balkans as a whole, is to consider historical precedents - and not in the spirit of ignorant veneration that we nowadays cultivate for art historical reasons, but in the hope of finding lessons and analogies that might be useful in predicting the future. Of the past we might ask, for instance, how long it took to rebuild Germany after 1945. Or how Japan was rescued from the Stone Age in the mere 25 years that separated its atom-blasted wasteland from the proudly unveiled future world of Expo '70 in Osaka.

Alas, in these cases and others like them, one factor consistently shines through. Investment in reconstruction needs political and economic stability. Neither Germany nor Japan made much headway until the Cold War made it expedient for the victors to restore their sovereignty. Before 1949 there was self-help, military government, occupation currency and no banking system. Kosovo is in pretty much the same state today, only smaller and worse.

Like accurate weather-forecasting, predicting the timing and resources needed for reconstruction after a war may be as much a matter of keeping accurate records as it is of making wild promises.

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