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Southeast Europe: Discord Shows Signs Of Accord At Balkan Summit

Prague, 4 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- There was something quintessentially Balkan about the circumstances of the summit of eight southeast European countries which took place in Crete on November 3 and 4.

While the leaders met to discuss greater cooperation, overcoming past strife, and a future of joint prosperity, warships and warplanes of the two most powerful states were facing each other tensely, ready for armed conflict at a moment's notice.

"At least it's dialogue, whatever way you look at it" shrugged a Turkish Foreign Ministry official attending the summit (Necati Utkan). Referring to the bubbling military tension with Turkey's arch-rival Greece, he said that tension would either decrease or move towards open conflict.

The knife-edge Greek-Turkish confrontation of recent weeks, with its aerial challenges over the Aegean, and near-collisions of warships, has tended to overshadow other aspects of the Crete summit. Still, the gathering has a place in regional history, in that it's billed as the first Balkan summit. It brings together Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Macedonia, as well as Greece and Turkey. Croatia and Slovenia did not attend.

In his opening speech, Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis acknowledged the region's historic and continuing burden of discord, saying that the outside world often viewed the Balkans only as a place of bloodshed and conflict. "We will have to change that", he said, with smooth optimism. He called on Balkan countries to consolidate peace, respect international law, and work together to bring economic prosperity. He said all the countries present wanted solutions to the problems which divided them.

Correspondents say the most lasting impact of the summit may be the opportunity it provided for rare bilateral meetings between leaders of countries long frozen in distrust. Simitis for instance spent 90 minutes with Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz; similarly, Yugoslavia's President Slobodan Milosevic spent even longer with Albania's Prime Minister Fatos Nano.

Yilmaz emerged from his talks saying that if Simitis continued along the same track, there are good chances of a sincere rapprochement between the two countries. Simitis said they had agreed that their countries would not revert to force, and would respect a 1988 memorandum calling for confidence-building measures. The United States, which was exercising pressure in the background, expressed pleasure that the two leaders had agreed to meet.

Of equal importance was the Milosevic-Nano meeting, in that their two states stand on the edge of a volcano in the form of Kosovo, the troubled Serbian province populated by ethnic Albanians. Milosevic said afterwards that he considered the meeting extremely important, namely the first opportunity to speak together after 50 years of frozen relations between Yugoslavia and Albania. He announced the start of the process to normalize mutual relations. But Milosevic gave no ground on Kosovo, saying that it was purely an internal matter. Nano demanded that the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo and of Montenegro be allowed to enjoy the same rights as all minorities in Europe under international law.

Romania, in keeping with the spirit of the summit, brought forward a proposal for a South-East Europe center for crisis prevention and management, to be situated in Bucharest. Prime Minister Victor Ciorbea said the center would be under NATO supervision. Ciorbea too held a separate meeting with Milosevic, at which he urged the Yugoslav leader to uphold the rights of the Romanian minority living in Serbia's Timoc Valley.

The burning political issues tended to catch more of the limelight at the summit than questions of economic cooperation. But such cooperation is of key importance when one considers the parlous state of most of the participants. The economies of Bosnia, Albania and Yugoslavia lie in tatters, Romania and Bulgaria still have much difficult reform ahead of them, Macedonia is subsisting, and even Greece and Turkey could wish for better times. At any rate, the final declaration pledged commitment to market economies.

The next Balkan summit will be held in Turkey just under a year from now.