By Vlado Mares in Belgrade (BCR No. 97, 26-Nov-99)
According to customs officials, samples of the oil had been sent to Belgrade for further checks. If no problems are reported, then the oil will be allowed to continue on its way, the officials said.
However, those well informed about politics in Serbia and especially about the nature of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, are voicing suspicion over the delays.
The fuel that the EU is sending to Nis and Pirot is part of the programme "Energy for Democracy" and is destined for towns where Milosevic's opponents are in power. The oil crossed the Yugoslav-Macedonian border on Wednesday, at about 6 p.m.
A welcoming party which included the mayors of Nis and Pirot, Zoran Zivkovic and Tomislav Panajotovic, Michael Graham, EU representative in Belgrade, and the ambassadors of Finland, Holland, Portugal, as well as some fifty citizens, greeted the trucks when they arrived.
As soon as the trucks crossed the border, the convoy of 14 vehicles, carrying 350 tons of fuel, they were immediately sent to a special customs terminal in Presevo. The trucks were further delayed when the customs enquiry was postponed until Thursday morning, at 9 a.m., on the pretext that the terminal does not operate at night.
"I cannot say that the customs officials are violating the law, but the procedure is taking much too long, and the problem is that the deputy head of the customs does not know how the procedure will further unfold," Zoran Zivkovic, vice-president of the opposition Democratic Party said on Wednesday.
Now the convoy has to await the results from the sample tests in Belgrade.
The mayor of Pirot, Tomislav Panajotovic, described the events as "exceptionally unusual" but stopped short of calling them illegal.
"Hundreds of trucks with fuel have entered Yugoslavia this year, but this procedure has not been applied to any of them," Panajotovic, also a member of the Democratic Party, said.
Mayor of Nis, Zoran Zivkovic, is furious with the delays and has threatened public protests if the regime tries to prevent the delivery.
EU representative, Michael Graham said that he is surprised and that he saw no reason for the delivery of oil to be delayed. "I expect that the legal procedure will be respected and that there will be no abuses", Graham said.
Charge d'Affairs at the Finish Embassy in the FRY, Hannu Mantyvaara said he was disappointed by the delays, but that he is convinced that there are no legal reasons for this.
"This should be a historical day for the beginning of new relations between the EU and the citizens of Serbia. We wish to show that the EU cares about the people of Serbia," Mantyvaara added.
The EU Commissioner for International Relations, Chris Patten, expressed concern in Brussels on Thursday, over the conduct of the Yugoslav authorities.
The unnecessary, two-day delay at the border has justified fears that the programme would be a difficult undertaking, involving many risks despite enjoying considerable support.
Warnings have already been issued that should this fuel shipment end up in Milosevic's hands, no further deliveries would be made. The programme organisers have made clear that assessments will be made after each delivery as to whether to continue and whether to venture deeper into Serbia, where some officials fear the convoys may be attacked.
Such fears are not unfounded if one bears in mind that the Yugoslav authorities have refused to treat the EU oil shipments as humanitarian aid, but rather as standard imported goods liable for customs and other duties.
The head of customs, Mihalj Kertes, is one of the most loyal of Milosevic's men. Amongst other things, he is famous for trying in 1997 to stop buses donated by Germany to the people of Belgrade, following the opposition election victory there, from entering Yugoslavia.
Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Radical Party and Milosevic's coalition partner, said on Thursday that the authorities would not prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid, but that the fuel was not classed as humanitarian aid.
Seselj accused Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement the Democratic Party of trying to sell the oil through their businessmen for personal profit. He added, "every attempt at selling humanitarian aid must be prevented."
Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party spokesman, Ivica Dacic, said on Thursday that these allegations merely confirmed that the opposition leadership is ready to "sell their own country for a few pennies from Western countries."
Zivkovic and Panajotovic have, however, warned that the stocks of fuel in Nis and Pirot are running out and that there will be no heating in those towns in two or three days time.
"If there is no heating - there will be no heating because of Milosevic," the two mayors said.
Following the weekend there are two days of public holidays in Serbia, leading more optimistic observers to argue that the convoy may extricate itself from the customs delays and reach the towns by the end of next week. But no one dares to ask the pessimists - i.e. the majority of people here - what date they would care to name.
Vlado Mares is a journalist for the Belgrade news agency, BETA and a regular contributor to IWPR.