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Balkan States: Leaders Seek To Ease Tension

Athens, 6 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of seven Balkan countries met on the island of Crete this week and promised to ease tensions between them and promote co-operation. Most of them considered the summit a useful first step towards a better and more peaceful future in the Balkans. But several acknowledged that success will not come easily or quickly.

The summit brought together leaders from Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Macedonia. Bosnia was represented by an assistant foreign minister but the other members of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia, declined to attend, saying they were not Balkan countries.

The summit was a historical occasion because it is the first time so many Balkan countries had met together in an effort to forge a common future and to deal with regional and bilateral problems. In another positive sign, the leaders agreed to meet again in a year's time in Turkey.

Greek prime minister Costas Simitis told the opening session that economic and political changes were shaping a new Europe from which the Balkans was largely excluded because of its tensions and mutual hostilities.

"Our region has often witnesses bloody conflict, fanaticism and rivalry," he said. "For many, even today, our region is an area of conflict. They see danger. They keep their distance. They hesitate to include our region when they draw-up the great policies which will shape tomorrow's Europe. This situation must change. We must change it."

The leaders agreed to co-operate in combating organized crime, particularly trafficking in drugs and arms, to fight against terrorism and to take joint action against illegal immigration. There was also considerable discussion on trade problems, with Romania's prime minister Victor Ciorbea proposing creation of a regional center to promote medium and small businesses. Bulgaria's prime minister Ivan Kostov called for large regional infrastructure projects.

But the main interest in this meeting of Balkan leaders focused on the political and other tensions which have marred relations between them for years. In the final communique the seven states promised to abide by international law and the U.N. charter and said they would respect each others territorial integrity and seek to solve their problems in a peaceful manner.

And there are plenty of problems. The main interest in the meeting was the tensions between Greece and Turkey, which have come to the brink of war three times in the last 23 years although both are members of NATO. The list of problems is long, including territorial disputes over islands in the Aegean sea. The main issue is the continued Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, which Greece considers parts of its sphere of influence. The Turks invaded in 1974 to protect the Turkish minority and still keeps 30,000 troops there.

A related issue is the recent decision of Greek Cyprus to buy Russian S-300 air defense missiles, which Turkey sees as a potential military threat to the Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus. Another issue is Greece's persistent campaign to keep Turkey out of the European Union.

Even while the summit was underway, Turkey was conducting large-scale military exercises in the part of Cyprus under its control. These were apparently in response to joint Greek and Greek-Cypriot maneuvers last month in the Greek part of the island.

Throughout the Summit there were frequent reports of Greek and Turkish war planes skirmishing with each other, although no shots were fired. The Greek and Turkish prime ministers, Simitis and Mesut Yilmaz, discussed their problems in a long, closed meeting. Nothing was resolved but they apparently agreed that the very fact of their meeting had helped create a slightly-better climate. The Greek prime minister accepted an invitation to visit Ankara some time in the indefinite future. He said he would go "when preconditions exist for a successful outcome," which many commentators could be some years away.

Nor are Greek-Turkish tensions the only issue standing in the way of Balkan co-operation. There is also the problem of Greece's relations with Macedonia -- or, as it is formally known, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. It is Greece which insists that the international community use this cumbersome name. It refuses to recognize an independent Slavic state calling itself simply Macedonia and argues that this could imply claims to the Greek province of the same name. Macedonia is also concerned about what it considers is an ethnic-Macedonian minority in northern Greece. Greece denies there is such a minority and says it is a community of about 35,000 Greeks who happen to speak a Slavic dialect.

The Greek prime minister also had a private meeting with Macedonian president Kiro Gligorov to discuss their problems. Gligorov later described it as "very pleasant and very important" but said his country had no intention of changing its name to please Greece.

Yet another Balkan problem lies in the differences between Yugoslavia and Albania over Yugoslavia's heavy-handed administration of Kosovo -- a Serb province populated almost exclusively by ethnic Albanians, many of whom are seeking autonomy or independence. Many political analysts fear Kosovo could be the next Balkan flashpoint.

Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic and Albanian prime minister Fatos Nano held a private meeting on the issue but, again there was no breakthrough and none had been expected. Milosevic told reporters he considered Kosovo to be a domestic issue.

Amid all these conflicts, Romania and Bulgaria stood out as islands of relative tranquillity. Bulgaria's prime minister Ivan Kostov and Romania's Victor Ciorbea used the Summit to seek support for their bids to join NATO and the European Union, which they apparently obtained from Greece and Turkey. Both enjoy good relations with most other countries at the Summit and some commentators suggested they are in a good position to help mediate or seek solutions .

Despite to absence of concrete progress on any of the long-running disputes, commentators appeared to believe the Balkan Summit to have been useful and moderately successful.

The Greek prime minister Costas Simitis told reporters: "We have started something which will have a firm basis and which will have a future. We have started something which we will bind our peoples closer together and will promote co-operate, peace and friendship and will form the basis for dynamic development."

Turkey's foreign minister Ismail Cem was also upbeat. He said the summit had given a clear message to other European countries that despite long-standing differences the countries of the region were determined to change their negative image and solve their problems peacefully.

But optimism was tempered by a realistic assessment of the difficulties. The Greek prime minister acknowledged them in his press conference.

"The road ahead is long," he warned. All of our countries have problems. Some have many problems. But we hope that in time they will be able they will be able to deal with their problems in a better fashion and co-operation will be greater."

At a practical level, the foreign ministers of the seven summit countries were instructed to examine the possibilities for setting up a permanent secretariat to promote the issues discussed by the summit. The foreign ministers will meet in Turkey next July and the next Summit will be held in the Turkish resort of Antalya in October 1998.