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Yugoslavia: Balkan Leaders Confer Ahead Of Reconstruction Summit

  • Breffni O'Rourke

On the eve of the Balkans Reconstruction Summit in Sarajevo, the political leaders of Southeast Europe's transition countries are meeting today to harmonize their approach to the summit. The regional leaders are well aware of the significance of the occasion. Our correspondent in Sarajevo looks at some of the issues they are expected to discuss in their preparatory talks.

Sarajevo, 29 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Political leaders from Southeastern European countries are holding a special meeting in Sarajevo today in preparation for the Balkans Reconstruction Summit in that city tomorrow.

The preparatory meeting brings together the heads of state or government of eight countries (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania). They are seeking to work out how best to use the crucial opportunity unfolding in front of them -- namely the presence at tomorrow's summit of the world's most powerful politicians, all of whom are eager to show their commitment to helping South East Europe out of its perennial troubles.

U.S. President Bill Clinton will be at the summit, as will German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, and the leaders of Japan, Canada, and Turkey.

The summit will inaugurate the Balkans Stability Pact, which was worked out at Germany's initiative last month to give meaning to the peace following the Kosovo conflict. The aim of the pact is finally to drag the backward Balkans into the European mainstream by offering the region increased support in terms of trade, investment, economic development and security, as well as guidance in democratization and institution building.

One of the organizers of the gathering is the Finnish ambassador to Bosnia and Macedonia, Timo Koponen. He told RFE/RL that the meeting has singular importance:

"I feel very much so, this is important because this also is the first time [we are] having this kind of get-together."

As such, tomorrow's summit appears to offer regional leaders a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- never before have so many wealthy foreigners arrived in the Balkans so intent upon offering so much help for its own sake.

Being politicians themselves, however, the Balkan leaders who are meeting today realize one thing clearly: that promises made under the waving flags of the summit will need to be translated into hard work by all sides in the years ahead. They know that the best way to keep the focus of the world upon them is to have definite proposals on hand to capture the imagination of the powerful countries and institutions that will be offering their support.

With this in mind, three of the countries at today's meeting -- Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia -- have already agreed to bring to the summit table specific joint construction projects. The three are promoting a plan for a major east-west communications corridor, consisting of a highway and railway, telecommunications facilities and an oil pipeline. It would run from the Bulgarian Black Sea port of Burgas though Macedonia to the Albanian Adriatic coast at Vlore or Durres. Another joint project would connect the countries' electrical power systems.

Today's Sarajevo meeting is also expected to consider a draft proposal that calls for the whole of South East Europe to become part of a multilateral free-trade zone by 2003, with tariff-free industrial exports to the European Union starting as early as next year.

The draft foresees Serbia as being allowed to participate in the free trade without any major political conditions. That is a politically controversial point in view of the demands of the major Western powers that Serbia be excluded from benefits until Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic gives up power.

Ambassador Koponen says that international officials will be listening intently to the regional heads and will be interacting with them:

"We very much hope that we, let's say, get even such an open type of dialogue."

After their meeting this afternoon, the Southeastern European leaders are attending a dinner, at which they will continue their talks.

Most of the other summit participants, including U.S. President Clinton, arrive in the city by air tomorrow morning.