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Ukraine: Disparate States Move Toward An Organization

Prague, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The 11 member states of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation group (BSEC) are having trouble finding a date for their summit, at which a charter is to be signed giving the group international legal status.

The largely-ceremonial summit was originally set for next week, March 13, in the Ukraine port city of Odessa. But the BSEC secretariat in Istanbul told RFE/RL that it now appears certain to be postponed to an indefinite date, probably sometime in June. That's because the various heads of state and government can't find a time that suits all of them.

Such a dilemma would seem typical of an organization which brings together a group of very different countries -- including some which openly dislike each other. The list speaks for itself: Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Albania, Russia and Ukraine.

In fact, the real surprise is that the 11 have been able not only to cohabit in one group since the BSEC was founded in 1992, but that they are actually making progress towards economic cooperation and integration.

Greece's ambassador to the BSEC, Spyridon Bacas, ascribes the progress to the fact that within the BSEC, the members have focused on strictly economic issues, and have avoided political contentions.

He told RFE/RL from Athens that all the countries realize that working together for prosperity is in their own interests.

Bacas said that at the same time, however, cooperation on the economic level has had, as an indirect by-product, an increase in general security in the region, which is very important. And he noted that an atmosphere has been created which has already enabled cooperation to go beyond purely economic terms and touch the realm of the political. The 11 are now working on an agreement for common steps to combat the movement of illegal drugs and arms, and terrorists. A drafting group is to meet soon in Athens, and that will be followed by a meeting in October, also in the Greek capital, of BSEC interior ministers.

Bacas said Greece believes in the future of the Black Sea grouping, and has sought to be an active member. He noted his country has been a firm supporter of the Black Sea Trade and Development Bank, which is just now coming into existence, based in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki. Greece, Russia and Turkey are contributing the largest shares to the capital of the bank, which is backed by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

The European Union too has offered support to the BSEC countries, on the premise that cooperation in this volatile area is for the general good of Europe. The EU spent about $540 million on Black Sea regional integration between 1991 and 1996, plus much more than that to BSEC members separately during the same period. The EU sometimes attends BSEC meetings in an observer capacity. Brussels is aware that, among other things, BSEC members Russia, Ukraine and Turkey have the three largest armies in Europe.

The coming Odessa summit can be seen as the end of the initial phase of the Black Sea grouping. It moves from being an "initiative" to an "organization," and with that, officials hope it will gain increased weight and recognition abroad.

Some 17 work groups are already in existence, covering areas like environment, transport, communications, health care and energy. Ambassador Bacas said that as far an energy goes, the BSEC countries are sharing electricity resources through interconnected grids, but that no real progress has been made within the group on the subject of oil and gas cooperation. This is a burning issue for the region generally, considering the vast resources about to be tapped in the Caspian basin. Member states Azerbaijan and Russia are poised to become major producers from the area, and fellow members Georgia, Armenia and Turkey are all transit points or recipients of the energy.

Bacas said that in an informal gesture to move the group towards common ideas on energy issues, the Greek government has invited BSEC fellow members to a seminar in Athens on that subject in early autumn.

The Greek diplomat also said that there is a strong emphasis on medium and small business, and that the BSEC secretariat has a business council which fosters contacts among businessmen in the region.

He acknowledged the difficulty of the 11 disparate states working coherently together, even on the economic plane, but he expressed optimism that the BSEC would continue gathering strength.