Mayors from cities in the European Union have held what the EU describes as a highly successful meeting with opposition mayors from Yugoslavia and similar local officials from Kosovo. The purpose was to give practical support and encouragement to democracy in those regions. RFE/RL's Breffni O'Rourke reports.
Prague, 18 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's security and foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has hosted a meeting between the mayors of West European cities and their counterparts in the West Balkans, notably from Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo, as part of the EU's effort to underpin democratic forces in the region.
At Monday's talks in Brussels were the opposition mayors of Nis, Novi Sad, and Pancevo in Serbia, plus the mayor of the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, along with a Serb and two ethnic Albanian co-mayors from the Kosovo towns of Gnjilane, Suva Reka, and Leposavic.
On the EU side were the mayors of Athens in Greece, Bologna in Italy, Barcelona in Spain, Dortmund and Konstanz in Germany, and Lille and Boulogne-Billancourt in France. Also present was Kosovo's United Nations administrator Bernard Kouchner, plus the special coordinator of the Balkan Stability Pact, Bodo Hombach, and representatives of regional organizations in the EU and of non-governmental organizations.
Solana said the reason for the unusual get-together was to lend support.
"We want to offer concrete evidence of our determination to welcome the countries of the region into the European family. We want to promote mutual understanding and ties of solidarity, without which the European perspective of these countries will never be realized. And we want to consolidate an important channel for practical, technical and financial assistance."
Solana's spokeswoman Christina Gallach told RFE/RL that the atmosphere between the officials was excellent, and that good working links had been established for the future. She said one of the first practical fruits of the meeting came when Barcelona's mayor announced that his city will hold in the fall a week-long seminar for the Balkan mayors. The seminar will offer training in subjects ranging from administrative procedures, to handling local police and media affairs, to garbage collection.
Personal contact helped further the common aims, Gallach noted:
"There was a very good moment when the mayor of Boulogne-Billancourt, who sat next to the mayor of Pancevo -- those cities have been twinned several years ago, but the men could never meet due to the circumstances, so they met for the first time -- they all put on the table new ideas. For example, the mayor of Pancevo said that his town is in desperate need of support for practical programs on the environment."
That's as a result of the bombing of a big chemical factory in the town during the NATO air campaign against Yugoslavia.
In response to such pleas, the chairman of the EU Committee of the Regions, which represents hundreds of the union's regions, said he would immediately make his membership aware of such problems, and mobilize them to respond.
Gallach praised the strength and commitment of the Serbian opposition mayors who came to Brussels in the face of official displeasure from the regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. She said:
"The mayors who came representing the Serbian cities are extremely experienced politicians, who have been working under very difficult circumstances. The mayor of Novi Sad, the mayor of Nis, the mayor of Pancevo -- they all are suffering from the fact that they are opposition mayors, so there is nothing coming to them from Belgrade, nothing to support them. And Nis, for example, was able to get heat for the winter thanks to the European Union's program 'Fuel for Democracy' , so they know how to survive, but we have to ensure that they can not only survive but they can really have a prosperous town and a prosperous city."
The EU outreach comes ahead of a string of municipal and national elections this autumn in Yugoslavia and the surrounding countries. That's not by chance. EU officials say their effort are designed to show the benefits that support for democratization brings to ordinary citizens.
The officials note, however, that apart from cases where the opposition is being helped, Serbia must remain excluded from assistance programs until the Milosevic regime loses office. But Stability Pact coordinator Bodo Hombach caught the general mood when he said he looks forward eagerly to the day when Serbia will be a full partner. He said:
"The Stability Pact waits impatiently for Serbia to be included. We have in all our activities an empty chair, which symbolizes that Serbia will belong to the pact in the same second that the political conditions there are fitting."
The West is united in hoping that day will come soon.
(Ahto Lobjakas in Brussels contributed to this report).