Prague, 23 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Kosovo crisis has focused the world's attention once again on the Balkans.
While it remains far from clear when NATO's conflict with the Yugoslav leadership of President Slobodan Milosevic will end, it already seems safe to say that the region as a whole will never be quite the same again.
In military terms, Yugoslavia's neighbors have drawn closer to the NATO alliance and the European Union, in the course of which they have further distanced themselves from Russia, whose influence in much of the Balkans had been pervasive for much of this century.
Romania, through an overwhelmingly positive vote in parliament, yesterday gave authorization for NATO aircraft to make unrestricted use of the country's air space to strike against Yugoslavia. Romania is an enthusiastic NATO aspirant and President Emil Contantinescu last week said there is no alternative to the policy of joining the Western alliance.
Bulgaria's parliament is expected in the next few days to give similar permission for NATO to use a broad air corridor, up to 150 kilometers wide, along its border with Yugoslavia. Its leaders have likewise expressed solidarity with NATO, and both countries expect NATO protection in the event that they are directly threatened by the Yugoslav conflict.
Meanwhile, the 'frontline' states Albania and Macedonia are hosting NATO troops which are helping them bear the brunt of the refugee exodus from Kosovo. None of the countries involved have any immediate prospect of joining the alliance, but nevertheless since the start of NATO's now month-long military campaign against Yugoslavia, they have drawn palpably closer to NATO and its members.
Economic progress is a prerequisite for political stability, and much thought is already being given to the issue of how to help the Balkans, including Yugoslavia, in future. Countries like Bulgaria and Macedonia are already facing heavy losses as a result of the cutting of trade routes and the general disruption to the region, including the loss of foreign investment.
One prominent German economist is advocating the establishment, after the hostilities, of a free trade zone to include Albania, Macedonia, Romania and Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia and Federal Yugoslavia. He is Hermann Clement, deputy director of the Munich-based East Europe Institute. Clement spoke today with RFE/RL:
"This entire region can only survive meaningfully when we can create a type of free-trade zone which in the long-term has the chance to lead these countries towards membership of the European Union. My grounds for saying this are that some of the individual national markets are too small by themselves to attract any large-scale foreign investment."
Clement argues however that such foreign investment is an unavoidable necessity for development of these countries, because the domestic capability to generate investment funds is too small. Investor confidence must therefore be created in a larger, regional market, and this in turn can only be achieved through establishment of a free trade zone and movement towards the orbit of the EU.
Of the Balkan countries, only Greece is already an EU member. Bulgaria and Romania have been accepted as candidates for membership, but no dates have been set for possible accession. Clement thinks the time-scale for membership is likely to be so long, some 10 years or more, that there's plenty of time to build a Balkan free-trade zone:
"Even countries that are candidate members of the EU face very high demands as regards economic competitiveness, and the harmonization of their regulations and so forth. So I think to have a type of "first-stage" is sensible, so that the other, less developed countries can be supported for an interim period without them having to come into conflict with EU regulations".
Clement's ideas are just one example of the thinking now underway in the West on the problem of how to help the Balkans, once this latest crisis ends.