NATO bombing has effectively destroyed the communications systems of Serbia and Kosovo. When the time comes to rebuild -- a matter to be discussed at the meeting of G-8 countries this week -- it will be American and European money that does it. That may give us some leverage and a historic opportunity not only for open communication but also to push the region's eventual integration into the wider European community.
Slobodan Milosevic ruthlessly used the old system of traditional broadcasting as an instrument of control in the largely receptive Serbian state. The people of Serbia saw what he wanted them to see. And he also controlled strictly the pictures allowed out of the country of what was happening during the NATO bombardment. In Kosovo, as new national politicians gain power, there will be a natural tendency for them too to use the communications system to create not an open and free society but a mirror image of Serbian control -- just one with a different story.
There is a different path: minimizing central control. You cease worrying about controlling the content of broadcasting (with the Internet you can't control it). You create the opportunity for many voices to be heard. New media technology offers opportunities to diffuse control.
We should encourage this development and use our influence and economic power to create a more open society. It won't be an American model or a traditional European model. It will be a leap into the future.
Take telephones. The centralized system, with its old-fashioned lines and switches, has been destroyed. Good. Let's not offer to replace it with similar antiquated technology (whatever the profit margin for the Western manufacturers).
Let the money from the NATO countries create a system that is not dependent on wires and massive terrestrial switches. It will be much cheaper. The mobile phone industry in Europe has flourished largely because of the inefficiency and poor quality of the traditional hard-line systems. Community mobile phone and Internet centers and cybercafes could be established. Then, if purchasing power improves, people can have their own individual mobile phones and computers.
As for television, which Milosevic has used in Yugoslavia as a dominant national signal to such evil effect -- a traditional centralized structure will lead to a perpetual struggle for control. It would be better and cheaper to go for cheap multiple diffused outlets, such as low-power radio and independent local television based on new distribution technology, subject to minimal regulation. We need to think about low elliptical orbiting satellites, airborne nodes of transmission and other unorthodox methods, all of them aimed at a multiplicity of opinions and not under centralized control.
To help fund this, one could turn to the Western computer industry and take its backlog of outdated chips (as loss leaders to help the technology, and a future market, take off) to help build the new systems. Let private venture capital, which has been so successful elsewhere, take the lead to establish new markets and get away from direct government funding. Poland has gone from a Communist economic ruin in 1990 to $6 billion of direct foreign investment in 1998.
The Balkans will be very difficult and on a smaller scale. But you don't have to wait in Kosovo (or in the case of Serbia wait to be rid of Milosevic or his clone) in order to take incremental steps to encourage the new communications society. You could quickly establish models that could infect other countries in someplace like Slovenia, an open and thriving part of the former Yugoslavia, to test the systems and undertake a cost-benefit analysis. The Finns, honest brokers to the Balkans who are not members of NATO, are becoming a highly advanced information society and could be the leaders in this initiative.
There are many obstacles. In Kosovo and Serbia the economy has been devastated, and there will be little disposable income. We have to contend with bureaucracy, widespread corruption and a passion for control. The economic and social environment does not support cooperation or entrepreneurial drive. There will have to be carrots to encourage this drive, particularly among the young. Imaginative -- private but government-encouraged -- investment funds in communications have the potential to bring dramatic social change. This is an opportunity to apply emerging technology (much of it already in use by the NATO forces that will be occupying Kosovo) and to stimulate new diffused democratic communications for an open society.
The writer is chairman of the Trans Atlantic Dialogue on Broadcasting and the Information Society -- a private group of some 80 communications industry executives and government officials from both sides of the Atlantic.