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Albania/Macedonia: Closer Cooperation Pledged On EU, NATO Bids

Albania and Macedonia have pledged to intensify bilateral cooperation, especially in the economic field, following the first official visit of Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilienka Mitreva to Albania. RFE/RL Tirana correspondent Alban Bala reports that both countries face similar challenges in integrating into European Union and NATO structures.

Tirana, 10 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Albania and Macedonia have committed to cooperate closely on a dynamic agenda that aims at seeing the two countries meet required standards for joining NATO and the European Union.

The agreement came during an official visit on 9 January to Albania by Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilienka Mitreva, who said the strained relations between the two countries were over.

"After the September parliamentary elections in Macedonia, we can easily see a new dynamic -- positive and strengthened relations between our countries, and an understanding of a new quality in these relations," Mitreva said.

Relations between the two countries had long been hampered by the accusation by former Macedonian officials that Tirana had supported the ethnic Albanian uprising in western Macedonia. The armed confrontation ended in August 2001 with the Ohrid agreement, which established greater rights and freedoms for Macedonia's ethnic Albanians.

Albanian Foreign Minister Ilir Meta, in remarks following talks with his Macedonian counterpart, did not mention the past controversy, choosing instead to focus on the future.

"The basis of this new commitment to a new quality in Albanian-Macedonian relations rests on our numerous mutual and common interests. It brings peace and stability to the region, and overall it supports our common project to join the EU and NATO. Regarding bilateral cooperation, we are focusing on the economic aspect," Meta said.

Macedonia was the first of six regional states to sign a free-trade agreement with Albania. However, the two countries' primary point of interest is the Corridor 8 project to build up a transportation infrastructure to link Eastern and Western Europe.

Both officials said they will work together to prepare a joint approach for EU and NATO integration. Meta said the two countries hold great hope for the year 2003, when nearby Greece and Italy will both hold the six-month rotating EU Presidency.

"We agreed to hold in Ohrid the first meeting where our Foreign Ministry ministers will discuss our three-year agenda until the next [NATO] summit. We discussed many other topics pertaining to the Stabilization Association Process, and we hope that during the [June 2003 EU] Thessaloniki Summit the process will be re-evaluated in order to encourage our countries," Meta said.

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou is expected to visit Tirana on 13 January. Senior diplomatic officials, speaking off the record, said his plan for a Balkan federation has been welcomed in Tirana.

In February, the presidents of Albania, Macedonia and Croatia have agreed to meet in Skopje in order to discuss further steps toward a joint action plan for meeting NATO requirements.

The two countries consider border security a challenge, especially on the issue of drug trafficking. However, Albanian Defense Minister Pandeli Majko has refused to establish a joint border force with the Macedonian Army. Analysts says this is due to incidents of Macedonian troops abusing local Albanians in the border area, where more than 35 people have been killed over the past five years.