23 February 2001
The Financial Times
EUROPE: Greeks see better times for Balkans
Financial Times; Feb 23, 2001
By KERIN HOPE
George Papandreou,Greece's American-born, British-educated foreign minister, declares without a trace of embarrassment: "I'm proud to be Balkan."
The reason, he says, is that a new generation of moderate leaders is trying to mend ethnic and political divisions that plunged the region into a decade of war.
"There's an ingrained image of the Balkans as a place of pessimism and intractable problems, of too much history and no real future. But I think we're in a period where we're turning this around," he says.
Mr Papandreou's optimism will be put to the test today at an annual summit of Balkan leaders held in Skopje, the Macedonian capital. Ljubco Georgievski, the 35-year-old prime minister, is hosting heads of government and foreign ministers from Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Turkey and Yugoslavia.
Long-term stability still seems a distant prospect, given the agenda for today's meeting: renewed attacks on Serbs in Kosovo, clashes in southern Serbia involving Albanian separatists from the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, and a move by Montenegro to break away from the Yugoslav federation.
In a sign of the continuing tensions, the Nato-led peace-keeping forces in Kosovo this week increased patrols along the Macedonian border, after reports of incursions by ethnic Albanian fighters from Kosovo. Greece will also call at the Skopje meeting for a stronger European Union presence in southern Serbia as part of a package of proposals to try to end violence in the area.
For the leaders meeting in Skopje, one underlying fear is that independence for Montenegro would bolster support for breakaway movements by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia, as well as undermining Bosnia's fragile unity.
"We have to try to avoid further fragmentation," Mr Papandreou says. "There are no 'ethnically clean' situations in the Balkans, so the aim has to be to create a regional community where it doesn't make any difference to daily life whether you live on one or other side of a border."
Mr Papandreou stresses Greece's role as an EU member that can offer practical help with liberalising trade in the Balkans and support its neighbours' aspirations for membership.
As Bulgaria and Romania make progress towards accession, a closer relationship with the EU has become a priority for Albania, which has yet to sign any kind of formal agreement with Brussels, as well as for Yugoslavia as it gets to grips with economic reform.
"Yugoslavia is going to become an important player as co-operation deepens within the region. This is good for Greece because it will end our situation of effectively being an island cut off from the rest of the EU," Mr Papandreou says.
Since the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic, relations between Belgrade and Skopje have shown a dramatic improvement. The Yugoslav and Macedonian leaders are set to sign a border agreement at the summit, ending a 10-year dispute over the delineation of the frontier between Serbia and Macedonia.
Greece has built close ties with the former Yugoslav republic since the Kosovo conflict, but a dispute over Macedonia's name - which was seen by previous Greek governments as implying a territorial claim on the northern Greek province of Macedonia - has still to be resolved.
Mr Papandreou says settling the name issue has become an urgent priority for Greece, as Macedonia prepares to sign a stabilisation and association agreement with the EU. Some 20 bilateral agreements cannot be implemented because Greece recognises its northern neighbour under the acronym of Fyrom - the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.
Copyright: The Financial Times Limited