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Yugoslavia: Balkan Reconstruction Summit Begins Today

More than 30 world and Balkan leaders are taking part in the Balkans Reconstruction Summit in Sarajevo today, a starting point for the international effort to put the region on the right track following the Kosovo conflict. Our correspondent Breffni O'Rourke says the summit is lasting only a few hours, but its impact is meant to endure for years ...

Sarajevo, 30 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A "marathon" is what the European Union's current president, Martti Ahtisaari, calls it. That's a long and arduous race. And it starts today in Sarajevo.

He is referring to the task of Balkans reconstruction, a process that has its ceremonial beginning at today's summit in the Bosnian capital. The summit marks the start of a program of coordinated international help for the struggling states of the former Yugoslavia and their larger neighbors, like Bulgaria and Romania.

The world's top leaders are present in Sarajevo today. They have come from the United States, the European Union, Russia and around the Balkans to inaugurate the Balkan Stability Pact signed in Cologne only last month.

The intentions of the international visitors are noble: To lend political, economic and moral support and encouragement for the development of an undeveloped region scarred by ancient rifts and recent conflicts.

But to carry on the sporting reference, the word "marathon" implies iron willpower and sustained effort. Can the 30 or so countries involved in the new Stability Pact muster the necessary stamina to carry on this effort, probably for decades, even long after the present leaders and governments are history?

There are those who doubt and those who have faith, and only time will tell.

Ahtisaari -- in a speech to regional leaders yesterday -- emphasized the historic possibilities:

"Sarajevo, where the tortured history of this century can be said to have begun, can now help launch a new century of peace, prosperity and democracy."

Bodo Hombach, the freshly appointed Stability Pact coordinator, stressed to journalists the more practical aspects. He noted the impetus already gained by the process -- from the finalization of the pact only last month, through to today's summit, which was arranged with breathtaking speed, onward to September, when the first working groups will be meeting, through to October, when the overall work plan should be ready.

Hombach -- who until recently was a special adviser to Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- said the pact's efforts will be coordinated through three so-called worktables. Each will deal with a specific range of economic, institutional and democratization subjects.

When asked by journalists what all this meant in terms of hard cash from donor countries, Hombach said the moment has not yet come to consider that. He noted, however, the satisfactory result of a donor conference in Brussels this week, which raised several thousand million dollars for rebuilding Kosovo.

But both he and Ahtisaari are very clear that, in the broader context, help also means self-help, that the recipient countries of the region must set out their aims and priorities and the ways to achieve them. Ahtisaari:

"I call upon you to focus on the concrete aims that you plan to set for yourselves individually and collectively. What are the priority areas of cooperation and regional exchange in which you would seek to get involved?"

As Ahtisaari said, the century that was plunged into bloodshed when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on a Sarajevo street in 1914 will, perhaps, end with Sarajevo as a symbol of international civil cooperation.