U.S. President Bill Clinton begins a ten-day European tour in Ankara, Turkey today that will also take him to Italy, Bulgaria, and the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports the trip was rocky at the outset and looks likely to stay that way, as the president seeks to address scores of thorny issues from Chechnya to Greek-Turkish Cypriot relations to Kosovo.
Washington, 15 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- First it was terrorist bomb attacks and then a temblor (earthquake) wreaking havoc on U.S. President Bill Clinton's scheduled trip to Europe this week.
Instead of traveling to Greece this past weekend for a two-night stay, Clinton will now go there November 19-20 for a visit of about 24 hours. Fears of violent protests forced the president's advisors to delay and shorten the first stop in Athens, at what U.S. officials say was the express recommendation of the Greek government.
A string of violent incidents recently and plans for mass protests have forced the need for a dramatic increase in security in Athens ahead of Clinton's visit, and U.S. officials say the government there needed more time to adequately address the issue.
Clinton is highly unpopular in Greece, a NATO member where the public expressed outrage at NATO's bombing of fellow Orthodox Christian Serbs. Many Greeks have also long negatively viewed perceived U.S. support for a 1967-1974 military junta and for not stopping Turkey from invading and dividing Cyprus in 1974.
In a joint press conference at the White House late Friday, U.S. Assistant Secretary for State for European Affairs Marc Grossman said the president's agenda in Turkey was threefold, with the first part focusing on economics:
"Secondly, we want to work with Greece in the region; on what they're doing in the Balkans and third (we want) to see that those issues of bilateral concern also include our concern on terrorism. In terms of Turkey, the agenda will be very much to do with security cooperation."
Shortly after word of the president's change in travel plans was made public, Greek leftists hailed the delay as a "victory over American imperialism." Some in Washington questioned whether the United States had not played into the terrorists' hands (met their desires) in changing the trip. Officials at the White House and State Department quickly denied that charge, saying they were following the Greek government's lead and that security issues always took precedence.
Just as the media curiosity about the trip's setback in Greece was dying down, Turkey was hit by a major earthquake. First reports late Friday indicated the quake was centered in the province of Bolu, located halfway between Istanbul and the capital, Ankara. By Sunday evening, more than 350 people were reported dead and some 3,000 injured.
Briefing reporters earlier at the White House on Friday, National Security Advisor Sandy Berger said he did not feel the quake would negatively impact Clinton's trip. But Berger acknowledged that the full scale of damage was NOT yet known.
Ironically, part of Clinton's agenda in Turkey is to visit Izmit, which was the site of a devastating earthquake this past August.
Coinciding with Clinton's visit, Turkey is to host a summit of the member nations of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Security for Central Asia is expected to dominate in the face of increasing dangers posed by fundamentalist Islam. Russia's ongoing military campaign in breakaway Chechnya is also expected to feature high on the agenda, despite Russian officials' stated hopes to the contrary.
"Russia will come to Istanbul with 53 other countries present. This is not just a concern of the United States; its a concern of the Europeans, at the EU and others. And I think that the extent to which we can manifest our views to Russia, not only as the U.S., but developed countries, and the extent to which they (Russia) can see they are isolated on this in the international community; We hope that we will have an influence on their decisions."
Berger reiterated that the U.S. foresees no military solution to the conflict in Chechnya.
Beyond that, Berger said President Clinton would also be meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin for discussions likely to focus on arms control and specifically the anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABM), as well as the importance of next month's Russian parliamentary elections and next year's presidential race.
While in Istanbul, Berger said the President would also be meeting his Armenian and Azerbaijani counterparts to express America's support for democracy in the wake of the recent terrorist attack in Yerevan that killed the prime minister and seven members of parliament. And he said the president would offer continued support toward fostering a peaceful settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Berger noted that the presence of several other leaders of the Caspian Sea region would also enable the U.S. to express its continued support for an oil pipeline that would transport Caspian Sea oil from Baku in Azerbaijan to Ceyhan in Turkey.
Bulgaria marks the third stop in the president's trip and it is there Berger said that Clinton will reaffirm commitments the U.S. made in Sarajevo to help Bulgaria and other countries of the region to rebuild security and help them attain economic prosperity.
To that end, Berger announced the authorization Friday of a new plan that would permit preferential duty free import for the region for the next five years. He said the products to be included are iron, steel, shoes, glassware, ceramics and agricultural products. Berger said the initiative account for about 40 percent of Bulgaria's exports to the United States, and he said Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Kosovo, and Montenegro would also be allowed to take part.
In Italy, the President is expected to follow up discussions begun a year ago on the so-called "third-way" policy.
Michael Calingaert of the Brookings Institute in Washington told RFE/RL the idea generally revolves around finding an alternative policy somewhere between capitalism and socialism. Calingaert cited Britain's Tony Blair as a good example of a politician carrying out policies best exhibiting the intellectual debate. The talks in Florence will group Clinton, EU Commission President Romano Prodi of Italy, and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder.
A last minute addition to the schedule has President Clinton stopping off in the Southern Serbian province of Kosovo to see how the United States is doing in helping peace to take hold there. The president's special advisor on southeastern Europe, Ambassador Chris Hill (U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia) spoke to that portion of the President's trip.
"It's first of all an opportunity to meet with our troops there only two days before (American holiday) Thanksgiving and to talk wih them and also have a pre-Thanksigiving dinner with them. It's also a great opportunity to meet with the UN administration there, as well as the leadership of KFOR to review ongoing problems in Kosovo. And it will also be I think a very important occasion to meet directly with both Serb and Albanian leaders in Kosovo to talk about their responsibilities for this very difficult transformation underway."
As Ambassador Hill noted, Clinton is scheduled to visit the heavily protected U.S. military base in the south-central Kosovo town known as Camp Bondesteel. It is home to some 6,000 U.S. troops and will mark Clinton's first visit to Kosovo.
That stop comes five months after the United States and its NATO allies forced a withdrawal of Yugoslav troops from Kosovo, following an 11-week bombing campaign.
The president is scheduled to return to the United States on November 23rd and Berger said it is hoped that the goal of a democratic, unified Europe whole and free will have advanced a little further from the effort.