Prague, 27 May1999 RFE/RL) -- NATO has stepped up diplomatic pressure on Ukraine to cease what many members believe are regular shipments of oil to Yugoslavia via the Danube river. The alliance has also called upon nearby nations, notably Romania and Bulgaria, to respect its voluntary embargo and not to provide Belgrade with oil, believed to be of Russian origin, or to help in Ukraine's alleged shipments.
Yesterday, both Ukrainian and Romanian officials denied any involvement in oil smuggling to Serbia by way of the Danube. In a formal statement issued last night, Ukraine, which NATO officials say is the chief offender, issued a blanket denial. Acting Foreign Ministry spokesman Ihor Hruchko read out part of the statement to journalists:
"Ukraine does not provide oil deliveries to Yugoslavia, does not offer its vessels for such deliveries and does not possess any information concerning oil transit through Ukrainian ports to Yugoslavia by a third party."
Earlier yesterday in Bucharest, a spokesman (Constant Calinoiu) for Romania's border guards said no permission to cross his country's territory had been asked for by -- no less granted to -- Ukrainian ships. But both Bulgarian and Romanian officials express concern about infringing the 1948 Danube Convention, which calls for free movement of ships on the river.
Romania and Bulgaria are known to have aided Belgrade during the war in Bosnia, from 1992 to 1995. But today both are NATO partners with aspirations of joining the Alliance when it makes a further expansion to the East. Earlier this year, NAT0 granted full membership to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
Ukraine, on the other hand, is considered to be pro-Serb, as are Russia and Greece, a NATO member.
The issue of continued oil shipments to Yugoslavia is of great concern to NATO's military commander, U.S. General Wesley Clark. Officials say he expressed disappointment to NATO ambassadors yesterday after the Alliance decided not to enforce an embargo on cargo ships reaching Yugoslavia through the Adriatic Sea.
Instead, the Alliance opted for a so-called "visit and search" regime for ships headed for Yugoslavia, rejecting a U.S. appeal for what Washington described as a more "robust" scheme backed by force. Several NATO members, notably France, opposed Washington's proposal, saying that without United Nations support it would violate international law and risk worsening relations with Russia.
But NATO spokesman Jamie Shea underlined yesterday that the Alliance is urging its partner countries in Eastern Europe to do all they can to end supplies of oil through the Danube River. Shea said:
"The traffic on the Danube [is] something we're watching very closely. And of course we are appealing, or we are consulting [with] those countries in the region, which are also NATO partner countries, to do what they can to stop this illicit traffic happening."
The U.S. in particular is concerned with what it strongly believes is Ukraine's involvement in oil reaching Serbia via the Danube. Officials in both Washington and at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv say they have no precise way of measuring just how much oil Belgrade getting though the Danube. They say the shipments are arranged by middle-men who make enormous profits because of the risks involved.
Asked (by the New York Times) how much oil Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was getting in this fashion, one Washington official said, "all he needs." Another simply said, "too much." That was the same response given by a U.S. diplomat in Kyiv.
Two days ago, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked about Ukraine's possible involvement in oil smuggling to Yugoslavia. She responded:
"We have been speaking with the Ukraine, and I will do so (as well). They have been, I think, on the whole, very cooperative with the efforts that we're all undertaking ... and I will be talking to them about some of the allegations."
During a visit last week to NATO headquarters in Brussels, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Boris Tarasyuk told reporters that, in one month of the war alone, his country had lost $220 million in trade. A NATO diplomat said that when Tarasyuk was told by alliance officials that his country must stop ships and barges from loading up with oil in Ukrainian ports, he simply countered with complaints about the economic damage Ukraine has suffered since the outbreak of the war. Who, he asked, was going to compensate Ukraine for that?
Analysts point out that even if Ukraine agrees to stop its alleged shipments of oil, Russia has several alternative outlets at its Black Sea ports of Novorossysk, Tuapse and Feodosia. That would seem to suggest no embargo on oil shipments to Yugoslavia could ever be foolproof without formal UN backing -- an unlikely happening given Russia's veto power in the Security Council.