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Balkans: Leaders Debate Conditions For Stability In Davos

  • Breffni O'Rourke

An impressive line-up of Balkan heads of state and government debated the future of their volatile region at the World Economic Forum in Davos last night. The forum is famous for the number of prominent people it attracts to its annual meeting in the Swiss Alps. That tradition was upheld last night when presidents Vojislav Kostunica of Yugoslavia, Rexhep Meidani of Albania, Stipe Mesic of Croatia, Petar Stoyanov of Bulgaria and Boris Trajkovski of Macedonia plus Prime Minister Januz Drnovsek of Slovenia all sat on one stage to discuss how to create stability in their region.

Davos, 29 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The five Balkan presidents and one prime minister took turns to present their views, and the attention of the audience -- perhaps naturally -- was focused on Vojislav Kostunica. He is the man carrying the responsibility of bringing Serbia back to good standing in the world community.

In the event, his comments were low-key and cautious. He started by saying that at last the Balkans might be turning a page in its history toward stability because of the continuing involvement of the European Union.

He spoke about the difficulties Yugoslavia faces in trying to contribute to Balkan stability. He mentioned the legacy of a planned economy, the burden of international sanctions and the damage done by the conflict with NATO over Kosovo.

Kostunica said in view of these circumstances Yugoslavia's main contribution to regional stability lay in the restraint it was exercising in various situations, such as in the Presevo Valley, where international peacekeepers are trying to contain a guerrilla campaign by ethnic Albanians. He said Yugoslavia also looks to have good relations with all its neighbors.

Answering a question from the audience about nationalism in Serbia, Kostunica said Serbia was still able to call itself a multi-ethnic country, unlike Bosnia which had been divided. And he praised the role of Russia in the Balkans, which he said balanced the influence of the EU and United States.

By contrast, the comments by Albanian President Rexhep Meidani were more combative. Meidani, who was sitting next to Kostunica, said the region continues to have a problem of political instability. He referred to Kosovo and Montenegro, the independence-minded junior partner of Serbia in the Yugoslav federation. He said neither Yugoslavia nor Serbia can be truly democratic as long as their leaders sought to keep control of territories whose people want self-determination. He said such a policy would lead to continued instability and possibly to violence. He said the future of Kosovo and Montenegro cannot be built on what he called concoctions of federalism.

Meidani said Serbian leaders also needed to be reminded of their international obligations, including those to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic said the first condition for stability in the region is to face the truth of what really happened during the past decade.

He said full cooperation with the Hague tribunal is necessary. He said that will clear the way for the future to develop.

Macedonia's Trajkovsky said that for stability, there must be reconciliation among the Balkan countries themselves. And he said that in Macedonia's view, the Balkan situation is not definitely settled, and he listed the fragility of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the status of Kosovo and the Yugoslav federation. He called for dialogue on these matters, and said the region will need constant attention from the EU. He also said regional cooperation was no substitute for eventual EU membership for Balkan nations.

In answer to a question about the risks of rising ethnic tension inside Macedonia, Trajkovsky said his country has a long tradition of inter-ethnic tolerance and, he said, that will continue:

"It's a long tradition, and besides that tradition, Macedonia has actively integrated the representatives of ethnic minorities into political and into everyday life, and that's a guarantee for he survival of Macedonia and for the concept of inter-ethnic tolerance."

Bulgaria's Stoyanov said he fears the issue of Kosovo's status, if it remains unresolved, could be a stumbling block in the way of continued democratization in Serbia. That's because of the tension it would produce in political life. And he said that it was originally thought that democracy in Serbia would solve the problem of the status of Kosovo, in that it would satisfy the ethnic Albanian Kosovars. But Stoyanov said that no longer appeared true.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou, who also participated in the debate, spoke of the greater maturity of the whole region, saying that there now exists the political framework for building regional stability.

Speaking in the capacity of Greece as an EU member, he reiterated that the EU is in principle not in favor of further fragmentation of states in the Balkans. He said that's Brussels' position on Montenegro, but that if it and Serbia wanted to go ahead and separate, then that was up to them.

He also asserted Greece's role as a bridge-builder between the EU and the Balkans:

"We have lived through a transition over the past 20 years in becoming part of Europe and recently part of the monetary union, we know both sides of the coin, and I think that is a unique experience from our side to help both Europe and the Balkans in this integrative process."

In comments concluding the debate, special envoy to the Balkans Carl Bildt said the Balkan region could take a lesson from the Middle East, where the opposing sides at least had learned to speak to each other directly.