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East: Central European Initiative Engages In Bridge-Building

Prime ministers of the 16 member states of the Central European Initiative meet in Prague this weekend (Nov. 5-6). This little-publicized grouping brings together within a cooperative framework countries as diverse as Italy and Belarus. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke looks at some of the achievements of the CEI in the last 10 years, and its plans for the future.

Prague, 4 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- What do Rome, Minsk and Skopje have in common? The answer is probably not very much -- except that all are capitals of countries belonging to the Central European Initiative (CEI).

Diversity rather than uniformity seems to be the chief characteristic of the CEI, which promotes political, economic and cultural cooperation among its members. The prime ministers of the group are meeting in Prague this weekend to celebrate its 10th anniversary and plan the next stage of their cooperation.

Host for the summit is the Czech government. In comments to RFE/RL, government spokesman Libor Roucek highlighted the differences among member states, rather than the similarities:

"This is a very important moment, because as you know the CEI started 10 years ago, and the main purpose was to bring countries together which were divided by the Iron Curtain then. And now we have 16 member countries. Some of the countries, such as Italy, are members of both NATO and the European Union. Others, like Austria, are members of just the EU. Others, like Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, are in NATO but still awaiting EU membership. And other countries like Belarus, Moldova or Ukraine are not members of any of those institutions."

Given this diversity, one of the CEI's most important functions is probably its ability to provide a "club"-style atmosphere to countries that are outside many other formal structures. Ukraine for example, has been increasingly signaling distress at being left out of the EU's eastward enlargement strategy. And that sense of exclusion is set to grow, considering that important trading partners for Ukraine, such as Poland and Estonia, are going to have to erect restrictions on the free movement of people, or tariff barriers, in order to conform to EU regulations.

As a counter to such divisions within Europe, the CEI provides a regular contact point where political leaders of eastern countries such as Ukraine can meet face to face with leaders of some of the EU states. This bridge-building works both ways. CEI member Austria, for example, has openly expressed worries about the impact on the EU of eastward enlargement. Regular contact at ministerial level with more than a dozen eastern neighbors helps familiarization. As Roucek says:

"There are always issues which have to be discussed, whether they are economic or trade issues, cultural exchange, or human rights, or the situation in South East Europe, the Balkans."

In this sense too, the CEI exerts a degree of peer pressure on member states to conform to international norms on sensitive issues such as human rights. Members include Moldova, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where fragile socio-politico-economic conditions mean that any extra support for the observance of human rights is welcome. Roucek has this to say:

"It is in the interests of all countries that human rights are observed in all the member states. That's the case let's say in Belarus, where the recent demonstrations showed that human rights are not observed to the extent which we would like to see." Belarus became a full CEI member in 1996. The political opposition there now rejects as illegitimate the continued rule of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

In terms of its concrete activities, the CEI is involved in projects on environmental protection, support for small businesses, harmonization of energy supplies, telecommunications, science and research, education, culture statistics and tourism. The projects are coordinated through 12 working groups, and financing loans have been extended by the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank. Joint undertakings include modernization of the road connection between Vienna, Bratislava and Budapest, and rail routes from Verona in Italy through Munich to Prague.

At the Prague summit, the premiers are to discuss the CEI's plan of action for the coming two years. As Roucek says, intensification of the existing types of cooperation is expected, but he says the leaders are open to suggestions in entirely new directions.

An economic forum is taking place in the Czech capital to coincide with the summit, and that will be attended by businessmen interested in investing in the region. (List of CEI member states: Albania, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine. )