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East: U.S. Moves To Stabilize Southern Europe

  • Sonia Winter

Washington, 18 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - Romanian Prime Minister Viktor Ciorbea goes to the White House today -- the latest in a procession of southern European leaders to visit Washington in the name of regional security.

Ciorbea is in town at the same time as president Kiro Gligorov of Macedonia, Bulgaria's new Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mikhailova, and former Austrian Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, a special envoy to Albania of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

All, with varying approaches, seek U.S. support in maintaining peace and security in the Balkans, and are getting a warm welcome -- but not much of what they really want, at least in public statements.

Romania's Ciorbea says he wants the U.S. to change its mind and back Romania for NATO membership in the first round of expansion next month. Even he acknowledged before leaving for Washington Tuesday that this is not likely to happen.

So, the next thing Ciorbea would like to hear in talks today (Wednesday) with Vice President Al Gore is when Romania will be admitted to the alliance.

Bulgaria's Mikhailova sought similar assurances earler this week from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and was told the U.S. is not ready to name countries or dates for a second round of NATO enlargement.

Meanwhile, Washington officials stress U.S. support and understanding, a commitment to keep the door to NATO open and pledges to deepen bilateral relations.

President Bill Clinton has invited Romanian president Emil Constantinescu to visit Washington and American analysts say more high-level meetings between the U.S. and non-NATO countries could be expected this year.

Washington officials say stability in the Balkans is of great concern to the U.S. for a variety of reasons, economic, as well as political.

All four countries under discussion in Washington this week have borders with Serbia and are close to dangerous religious and ethnic faultlines in Europe.

U.S. involvement is motivated not only by the overarching goal of peace and democracy in the region but also by the interests of European allies.

According to Washington analysts, U.S. concern about Romania arises partly from pressure by the French and other NATO allies, as well as the country's own strategic and geo-political significance.

In Bulgaria, the new progressive government is committed to painful reforms that may exacerbate domestic ethnic rivalries with its sizeable Turkish minority. That could upset neighboring Turkey, another important U.S. ally.

Further down the road, analysts say Bulgaria could be involved in the transport of Caspian Sea oil, now under development by international investors, including several American companies.

Foreign Minister Mikhailova says Bulgaria is also willing to do more to combat illegal drug trafficking and international terrorism, both important goals for the United States.

The poorer countries of Albania and Macedonia have less to offer in that regard but State Department officials say the U.S. focus is primarily on regional stability.

Macedonian president Gligorov spent more than half an hour at the White House Tuesday discussing regional problems with president Bill Clinton.

Gligorov told reporters afterwards that he wants international peacekeepers to remain in his country and in the region after dates set for their withdrawal.

He said the presence of peacekeepers in Bosnia ended the senseless war there, ended the killing and that their continued presence "would be very positive."

The U.S. has remained adamant that it will pull back its own troops from NATO forces in Bosnia by a June 1988 deadline. But it has not said no to extending the participation of some 500 U.S. troops in a United Nations peacekeeping force patrolling in Macedonia, which is due to end its mission in November.

White House spokesman Michael McCurry emphasized a different aspect of the conversation, saying Clinton praised Gligorov "for his statesmanship in resolving differences with neighbors and in promoting ethnic tolerance at home. "

He was referring to a long-standing dispute between Greece and the Skopje government over the former Yugoslav republic's name "Macedonia," which is the same as the name of a neighboring province across the border in Greece.

A U.S. official said the two sides are now showing a willingness to discuss the issue. And Gligorov indicated as much, telling reporters that Macedonia has "a very positive assessment" of the policy of the Greek government.