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UN: Secretary-General To Stress Reconciliation On Balkan Trip

  • Robert McMahon

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan heads to the Balkans this weekend for a series of meetings with top leaders from the former Yugoslavia. His trip comes at a time the UN is preparing to close down two peacekeeping operations in the region and sees many of the countries at a turning point. One of Annan's top aides on political affairs tells RFE/RL in an interview that the secretary-general will urge all parties in the region to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal, resist nationalism, and promote reconciliation.

United Nations, 15 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will arrive in Sarajevo on 17 November to start a four-day trip to the former Yugoslavia aimed at bolstering the region's painstaking reform efforts.

In Bosnia, Annan will mark the end of a successful UN peacekeeping mission formed after the Dayton peace agreement in 1995. The mission, known as UNMIBH, was responsible for restructuring Bosnia's police force and establishing a state border service. UNMIBH passes on its mandate to the European Union at year's end.

For Annan, a former UN special envoy to the former Yugoslavia and head of peacekeeping, the visit affords an occasion to underline the UN's value in a country where the organization had one of its darkest moments in the mid-1990s.

Annan will meet with leaders of Bosnia's two entities as well as the Bosnian presidency, representing its Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian constituencies.

One of Annan's top aides on the Balkans, Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Danilo Turk, told RFE/RL in an interview this week that Annan will be preaching moderation throughout his trip to the Balkans: "Nationalism is a very strong political force in the Balkans, including in Bosnia-Herzegovina, so the need to overcome that legacy will be, I believe, one of the very central messages of the secretary-general. There have been some achievements so far but not enough and there is need for more."

Another legacy of the Balkan wars has been a surge in organized crime, including the trafficking of women. The problem is particularly rampant in Bosnia, where UN envoy Jacques Klein this year set up a program to rescue trafficked women and close down brothels. But EU officials have said they will not be continuing the program.

Turk says that, given the scope of the trafficking problem, it would best be dealt with in a pan-European manner: "The UN is not necessarily very well placed for organization of a network which requires very heavy investment from the European Union and also serious cooperation of countries of origin where women are trafficked into the Balkans and in some cases through the Balkans into Western Europe."

From Bosnia, Annan travels on 18 November to Pristina, capital of Kosovo, which a UN administration has been running for three years. Turk says Annan will make a strong appeal for reconciliation and coexistence for the majority ethnic Albanians and non-Albanians, especially Serbs.

The UN special representative in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, has stressed the need for political leaders in the province to work toward various reform benchmarks. He says these benchmarks, which Steiner likens to the chapters negotiated by European Union candidates, must be met before any timetable for the province's projected "substantial autonomy" can take place.

Turk said this is the best approach at the moment: "I believe that the key formula which has been proven correct is the formula 'standards before status.' There has to be implementation of standards and benchmarks as defined by UNMIK [UN Mission in Kosovo] before any decision of status and status has to be finally negotiated and approved by the Security Council."

Annan will meet in Pristina with President Ibrahim Rugova and Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi as well as UN and NATO officials responsible for providing security in the province.

The secretary-general on 19 November will head to the divided northern city of Mitrovica, where he will reinforce support for Steiner's new plan to try to link Serbs and Albanians there in municipal government. Annan will later visit the ethnically mixed village of Gornje Makres, which has recently enjoyed a better record than most towns in Kosovo on minority returns.

Later on 19 November, Annan travels to Belgrade for a series of meetings with senior leaders to discuss Kosovo, cooperation with the war crimes tribunal, and political developments. He will meet, in succession, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djincic, and Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic. Annan's visit comes at a time when preparations are under way for the Yugoslav federation to turn into a looser union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Assistant Secretary-General Turk, who served as Slovenia's ambassador to the UN in the 1990s, said Yugoslavia still needs international assistance as it sorts out the relationship between its remaining constituent parts. But he is encouraged, he said, by the democratic way it is carrying forward its transformation: "The process of transformation after the dissolution of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is not yet completed but its current stages are more normal than anything before and I think that's positive. That's a source of satisfaction, in a way."

The country that has progressed the most since the Balkan wars of the 1990s is Croatia, Turk says, and Annan will recognize its role in helping regional stability when he visits Zagreb on 20 November.

Croatia is still struggling to respond to UN war crimes indictments handed down against two popular military leaders, General Janko Bobetko and retired General Ante Gotovina.

Annan will meet war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte on 20 November in Belgrade before heading to Croatia and will raise the issue of cooperation with the war crimes court. But Turk says Annan will also emphasize Croatia's cooperation in many other areas: "Croatia has had for the last 2 1/2 years a rather good progress towards strengthening of democracy, pluralism, and normalization, which is something that needs to be recognized. It has made progress in overcoming the ideologies of the past, including nationalism, [which] has been reduced considerably. This general picture is positive and I think one has to recognize that."

Annan will discuss the dispute over the Prevlaka peninsula in Belgrade and Zagreb. A UN military observer mission was set up there in 1996 to monitor the demilitarization of territory on both sides of the Croatian-Yugoslav border.

Annan has said the mission could be wrapped up next month based on progress achieved by both sides this year, but Turk says they still remain divided over what the sea border should be.

If the monitoring mission does end next month, that would leave Kosovo as the only UN peacekeeping operation in the former Yugoslavia after a decade of intensive UN involvement.

Turk believes that the European Union should intensify its engagement with the region as the UN presence fades: "I believe the notion that the Balkans is a part of Europe and has to be managed in a way allowing it to share the fate of Europe. That's very meaningful. It's not easy because there are things that need to be done -- the tribunal, disarmament, de-mining. Many other forms of normalizations have to take place before that can happen, but in essence that is the key."

Slovenia is the strongest candidate to emerge from the former Yugoslavia for NATO and EU membership. Turk believes the accession of his native state could have a strong "pull" effect on other former Yugoslav republics. He says that Bulgaria's possible membership in NATO can have huge symbolic importance for Serbia and Macedonia.

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