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Southeast Europe: Parliamentary Leaders Discuss Cooperation, European Integration

The speakers of parliament from the countries of Southeastern Europe gathered at a conference in the Albanian capital Tirana yesterday and called for better regional cooperation in fighting organized crime and all forms of trafficking. However, as Alban Bala of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reports, some conference participants -- while sharing a common desire to cooperate in the fight against crime and corruption -- chose to emphasize the primacy of European integration over regional cooperation.

Tirana, 6 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The parliamentary speakers of Southeastern European countries met in Tirana yesterday for the third time, calling for strengthened cooperation against organized crime, corruption, and trafficking across the Balkans.

Zarko Korac, the deputy speaker of one of the two chambers of the Yugoslav federal parliament, was one of those calling for more regional cooperation.

"There is no doubt there is a greater need for regional cooperation. There are many areas [in which] we can cooperate in the Balkans. In this conference, few of them have been emphasized very strongly in practically all the speeches -- for example economic cooperation, also border control, visa regimes, and security."

Some participants expressed frustration with the prevalence of legal vacuums and the absence of local authorities in international protectorates, that is, in Kosovo and to a considerable extent in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Adrian Severin is president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a former foreign minister of Romania.

"We still have several protectorates in the Balkans, and their perspectives are still unclear. We still have, all over the Southeast European area, a lot of corruption and organized crime [which] we are unable to curb down significantly. More dangerously than that, we have structural deficiencies which generate crime and terrorism, as well as a quite tolerant attitude of states' authorities towards these intolerable phenomena."

According to Severin, "the international community's contribution still either comes too late or is too inconsistent, or [is otherwise] inadequate."

Macedonia's speaker of parliament, Stojan Andov, says European integration remains a priority for Macedonia, even ahead of regional cooperation. He says European integration will help accelerate the resolution of security issues.

"The desired regional cooperation is not and cannot be a substitute for our integration into European structures. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, building new barriers is simply unacceptable. Unfortunately, for the citizens of some of the countries in the region, there is now, for example -- the visa and passport regulations are more rigid than ever."

The speaker of Bulgaria's parliament, Ognian Gerdjikov, the only one of the countries in attendance to have been a front-line Warsaw Pact member state, took the most optimistic stance of all the participants. The Bulgarian parliamentarian says that "never before have countries of the region had such favorable opportunities for taking common actions and finding mutually acceptable solutions to the issues in their relations." Gerdjikov continued: "Today, for the first time in the region's history, all countries of Southeastern Europe have embraced the common European values of peace, good neighborliness and cooperation, democracy and respect for human rights, [and] economic and social progress. European and Euro-Atlantic integration is their common objective."

The prime minister of the host country, Albania's Pandeli Majko, nevertheless pleaded for greater emphasis on regional cooperation as one component of European integration: "The model of relations [that] EU countries have implemented should become ours."

Albania has a free-trade agreement with Macedonia and is negotiating a similar agreement with Croatia. Albania and Montenegro have reactivated road and railway connections.

The speaker of Albania's parliament, Namik Dokle, applauded the cooperative approach taken by the Southeastern European countries in the legislative field, noting that joint efforts must now focus on the war against terrorism in addition to other criminal activities.

"That's why I think the war against international terrorism, against illicit trafficking, against corruption, and other negative phenomena which have contaminated virtually all the countries in the region should become the core of our future strengthened cooperation."

Dokle echoed his Macedonian counterpart's concerns, calling for the liberalization of visa regulations for the citizens of regional states in order to enable a Schengen-type zone among Balkan countries.

Nevertheless, Albania -- while having made considerable progress in developing its infrastructure and raising its standard of living, particularly since the 1997 unrest -- still faces considerable domestic social problems that may hamper its ability to integrate regionally, let alone at a European level.

According to a country report on human rights practices released this week in Washington, Albania is far from meeting standards on the rule of law. The U.S. State Department says police officers in Albania "often were involved in cases of trafficking in persons, and although the number of Albanians subjected to trafficking to other countries has decreased, Albania remained (in 2001) a significant country of origin."

The report notes Albania was a major transit country for trafficked women and girls, due to weak border controls, corruption, and its proximity to Italy, a frequent destination for traffickers.