Prague, 8 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering says the United States backs greater democratization in the Balkans but does not favor independence for the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
Pickering made the comment yesterday in the Czech capital Prague while on a tour of southeastern and central European countries, including Albania, Slovenia, Macedonia, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia.
Concerning Montenegro, Pickering says independence is not the answer. He says the solution lies in promoting democratic forces in Serbia:
"(Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic) himself, of course, will have to make up his own mind about whether he proceeds with the referendum on independence. But we have told him, as we have told others, that we don't believe that independence for Montenegro is the appropriate answer to the set of issues that confront Montenegro or indeed confront Yugoslavia as a whole as it is now called. We believe in effect that the absence of Mr. Milosevic from Serbia and the promotion and the prospering of a democratic opposition in charge of the government in Belgrade is the appropriate answer to the series of problems -- neither Kosovo independence nor Montenegrin independence."
Pickering's comments came as Montenegro's new foreign minister said his country was at a crossroads and must decide soon whether to separate from Yugoslavia or lose more time bogged down in isolation and conflicts.
Branko Lukovac was quoted Monday in a Montenegrin daily (Vijesti) as saying Montenegro has "no chance" of being accepted by the international community if it remains part of the Yugoslav federation under current circumstances. Montenegro and the larger Serbia are the two constituent republics of rump Yugoslavia.
Pickering says if the situation over Montenegrin independence were ever to reach the stage of an armed conflict, the U.S. would support Montenegro.
Pickering also discussed the progress of international efforts to revitalize Kosovo and the entire Balkans through the Balkan Stability Pact. The pact was formed last year after NATO air strikes as a way to coordinate Western support for rebuilding Kosovo and the economies of surrounding countries damaged by the war.
Pickering says the pact has made progress, but that the region must work more aggressively toward achieving greater stability:
"I think, first and foremost, there needs to be a great deal of understanding ... that many areas of cooperation have already begun, from improved business cooperation to working together to an issue that may seem mundane, but which is vitally important, the teaching of history.
Secondly, there has been large-scale pledges by many governments, beginning with 12 billion Euros from the European Union through over $350 million currently by the United States government, pledges that will be important in strengthening the work of the Security Pact.
Obviously, a third component of the Security Pact is the willingness of states who are participating to continue with economic and political reforms so that the financial support aspect of the Security Pact and the cooperative efforts of the Security Pact can be continued to be enhanced as they work together to build a better future for southeastern Europe."
Pickering also commented on the recent inclusion of Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in the new Austrian government. Haider's party, which placed second in parliamentary elections last year, was invited to form part of coalition government last week. The move has sparked international condemnation.
Pickering says Haider's past statements opposed to immigration and sympathetic to some aspects of Nazi Germany have put the world on alert to watch the situation very carefully:
"We were not born yesterday. We have listened to Haider for many years. We are not naive. He has said consistently and continually things that have been both racist, in my view anti-democratic, and totally untruthful about the Nazi past. He has done it perhaps as a kind of 'reactionary populist' to gain ground. But, in our view, what he says is what he represents. The fact that he's frequently apologized for it and then gone out and immediately said it again leads us to have further qualms about who he is and what he stands for. We have seen this kind of activity in Europe in the past and -- obviously -- we believe that it needs to be dealt with early by the international community, and therefore we welcome that stage."
Pickering also commented on the disappearance of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky.
Pickering says the U.S. is pushing Russian authorities very hard for more information about the reporter, who was reportedly detained by Russian authorities last month and then traded to Chechen rebels in a prisoner-of-war swap last week.
The detention and subsequent actions have prompted concern at U.S.-funded Radio Liberty for Babitsky's survival. He has not been heard from since his disappearance.
Pickering says that regardless of the outcome, bilateral relations between the U.S. and Russia have suffered as a result of the way the Russians have handled Babitsky.