U.S. President George W. Bush, in Prague today at the conclusion of the NATO summit, met briefly with the presidents of three Balkan countries aspiring to join NATO: Albania, Macedonia, and Croatia. The three Balkan presidents visited RFE/RL headquarters yesterday, where they announced closer cooperation to work in harmony toward the common goal of NATO membership.
Prague, 22 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- First there were 10, and now there are just three. The Vilnius group of 10 Eastern European states that aspired to join NATO after the alliance's first wave of expansion in 1999 has shrunk since NATO announced in Prague yesterday that seven candidate states will join in 2004.
That leaves the three west Balkan states of the Vilnius group, Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. Their presidents, in Prague on the sidelines of the NATO summit, agreed yesterday to cooperate more closely in their bid to qualify for invitations to join the alliance. They told reporters after their talks that the Vilnius group will not cease to exist until all its members are in NATO.
Speaking at RFE/RL headquarters yesterday, they divulged details of their planned cooperation through regular meetings in their capitals. Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said: "The participation in today's meeting with my friends, Albanian President Alfred Moisiu and Croatian President Stipe Mesic, creates the opportunity for our three countries to work more closely and more intensively than in the past toward getting into NATO by discussing basic elements that could be included in our joint efforts to be admitted into NATO."
Albanian President Alfred Moisiu said: "As a way of achieving the goal [of NATO membership], we agreed today with President Mesic and President Trajkovski that common problems, like regional security, economic market reforms, military reform, and the fight against terrorism, can all be better resolved through closer cooperation."
Croatian President Stipe Mesic said: "We must establish the legal framework, that means signing agreements that can guarantee quality cooperation. And more importantly, we have to establish or enable the establishment of contacts among entrepreneurs who can identify opportunities on all sides."
In the meantime, the three presidents say, much needs to be done to make the region, scarred by war, poverty, and organized crime, a safer place to live.
Macedonian President Trajkovski said: "The Balkan region today still is not safe, it is not yet a place for a decent life. We are surrounding by a large arsenal of weapons, a large number of people who are getting rich through smuggling, corruption, and murder."
One of the threats to stability is continuing Serbian nationalism, a root cause of four wars Slobodan Milosevic fought between 1991 and 1999. It remains a potential source of destabilization in Serbian enclaves in Kosovo, in the ethnically Bosniak-inhabited Sandzak region on Serbia's border with Montenegro, in Montenegro itself, and among Serbs in the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska.
Mesic said Serbia must deal with its past in order to be able to confront the future. "Serbia has to experience a catharsis, confront the truth, because neither the army of Croatia nor that of Kosovo or Bosnia-Herzegovina went into Serbia. Neither in Croatia nor in Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kosovo were there [prison] camps for the citizens of Serbia. But there were camps in Serbia in which there were citizens of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo," Mesic said.
Mesic said Serbia must condemn -- not just formally -- the crimes it committed in wars in the 1990s and ensure that those who committed crimes are held accountable for those crimes. Only then, he said, can Serbia cooperate on achieving European standards with Croatia and other states in the region.
Croatia under Mesic has shown a greater willingness to cooperate in the prosecution of indicted war criminals, but that willingness has been selective, as shown by the government's current support and legal assistance for the former army chief of staff during the 1991-95 war. Retired General Janko Bobetko refuses to heed a war crimes indictment by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Another potentially destabilizing element in the region is the widespread perception, however inaccurate, that Albanians want the Albanian-inhabited regions of Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Greece to unite into a single greater Albanian state.
Moisiu sought to dispel these fears in his address. "We think that Albania and all the Albanian players are a factor for stability, peace, and coexistence in the region," Moisiu said.
In recent years, Albanian leaders have spoken of an Albanian zone in an integrated Europe and insist that all they want is the reduction or elimination of barriers to the free flow of people, goods, and services between Albanian-inhabited areas of different states.
Last year's ethnic Albanian rebellion in Macedonia, financed and supplied by the Albanian diaspora, mainly in Switzerland, Germany, and the United States, was in large part the result of a decade of refusals by the Macedonian parliament to pass legislation granting the country's minorities, particularly the Albanians, basic civil and language rights.
The seven-month insurgency ended with a framework peace agreement, disarmament, amnesties, and a promise of legislative and constitutional changes to improve minority rights.
Asked by RFE/RL what lessons were to be learned and recommendations to be made to other states in the region where minorities still consider their rights to be inadequate, such as Montenegro and Serbia, President Trajkovski of Macedonia put a positive spin on his country's experience. He said that during its first decade of independence from 1991, while the rest of the former Yugoslavia descended into war, Macedonia acted maturely and rationally as a generator of peace and stability. "We really confirmed this during last year's conflict when we succeeded to transform this conflict into a political dialogue and really to solve the consequences of that conflict and also to increase or to enhance the democratic credentials of the country," Trajkovski said.
Trajkovski said Macedonia has tried to deal with what he terms "the most sensitive issues," including language usage, integration of public administration, education, and the public-health system.
The Macedonian president said the improvement of human rights standards in a democracy has no end, as there is always room for improvement. "Macedonia really achieved this in a very, very democratic manner and showed a very positive example for the other countries in the region. I'd like to say this is not a lesson for Macedonia but a lesson for the rest of the countries of the region," Trajkovski said.
But Trajkovski left unanswered the question of whether it wouldn't be wise for other states in the region to grant greater ethnic and language rights today rather than risk having to do so under the pressure of an insurgency tomorrow.