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Balkans: U.S. Brokers Economic Coalition

Geneva, 19 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has set out to broker an unprecedented economic coalition in a part of the world whose name is a synonym for international splintering and strife.

Commentators have used the term "Balkanization" for much of the 20th century to describe situations where areas break up into struggling, quarrelesome, small nations -- as on the Balkan Peninsula of Southeast Europe. Now, nine nations of Southeast Europe have set out to implement a U.S. proposal for a Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI).

The nine self-declared "participating states" of the SECI are Albania, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Greece, Hungary, Moldova and Romania as well as Turkey.

Since meeting in Geneva two weeks ago at the invitation of the United States, representatives of the nine have begun a search for what they are calling a "high level personality" to coordinate SECI projects.

The actual appointment will be made by Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen in his capacity as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which he takes over January 1.

The German newspaper "Handelsblatt" in a report on the SECI this week called it a "Marshall Plan for the Balkans." But U.S. Ambassador Richard Schifter, a special advisor to President Bill Clinton recently named by Clinton to lead U.S. SECI liaison, termed it instead "a self-help program."

In an address to the initial SECI meeing, Schifter told the participants: "Let me make it very clear at the outset that SECI is not a new massive economic assistance program."

The SECI participants do expect substantial involvement from international institutions, in addition to the OSCE appointment of a high level coordinator. The staff of the Geneva-based Economic Commission on Europe, a U.N. body, is to provide technical support. An SECI press release said that international financial institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank are, in the statement's words, "expected to be involved in SECI's efforts."

SECI's participating countries plan to establish an agenda committee to examine a range of shared concerns on cross-border transportation, energy grids, communication systems, clean air and water issues, and other economic and environmental questions that affect the area as a whole.

The committee will determine priorities for SECI discussion and action. Ambassador Schifter suggested as an early priority issues on cross-border transportation of goods and people.

Schifter told the inaugural SECI meeting that an overriding goal should be to find an answer to the question: "What does it take for the countries of Southeastern Europe to be perceived as a region in which major business enterprises can engage in region-wide development efforts?" He said the answer would have to come from the SECI nations themselves.

At a later press conference, Schifter said the only way that the region can prosper is to increase signficantly the amount of investment it attracts.

Eventually, SECI expects to embrace 12 nations. Croatia and Slovenia sent delegations to the inaugural meeting, but their representatives were unable to sign on to the organization without further consultation with their governments.

The United States withdrew its initial invitation to Serbia, in the light of political upheaval there after allegations that the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic is engaged in election fraud.

In his remarks at the beginning of the SECI conference, Schifter told the delegates: "We are all here because the United States wants to encourage the integration of Southeastern Europe into the rest of Europe and into the transatlantic relationship."