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EU and Balkan leaders hold key summit
ZAGREB, Croatia -- European Union heads of states and foreign ministers have opened a Balkan summit aimed at boosting regional integration and rewarding pro-democracy reforms.
The meeting in Zagreb, called by France and co-hosted with Croatia, includes all EU member states and all republics of the former Yugoslav Federation -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia as well as Serbia and Montenegro, the two regions that now form post-war Yugoslavia.
Albania, the only state that was never part of the former Yugoslav Federation, is also at the meeting.
The purpose of the summit is for the EU to encourage closer integration between the Balkan countries, which are already benefiting from EU financial assistance worth hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for a clear commitment towards reforms, democratisation, regional co-operation and respect for international obligations.
European Commission President Romano Prodi said: "The scales have now shifted decisively in favour of peace, giving us a historic chance to build stability and prosperity."
The ultimate reward sometime in the future may be EU membership, or at least an offer to become a potential member (so far only Slovenia enjoys that status).
With this summit, the EU hopes to send a simple message to the Balkan countries -- normalise your relations, democratise quickly, resolve your differences at a negotiating table, and you will be rewarded with monetary aid and direct investments.
In the last decade, the EU has spent nearly $4.3 billion dollars (5 billion euros) on reconstruction and economic development in the region. But Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb strongman widely blamed for starting four Balkan wars, was considered an impediment to real regionwide co-operation.
Since Milosevic's fall from power last month, Yugoslavia has been re-admitted to international organisations such as the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the Stability Pact for the Balkans, and there have been clear moves towards its reintegraton into the family of Balkan nations.
Diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and its former republics will soon be established again, including with Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Belgrade is also reaffirming its intentions to become a reliable partner in the region, and normalise its relations with Croatia, Albania and Macedonia.
But the road to reconciliation is still very long and hard, no matter how tempting the reward may be.
A recent poll carried out in Croatia indicates that 45 percent of Croats are against Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica attending the summit in Zagreb. The same poll shows that 28 percent are in favour of his presence, while 18 percent are undecided.
A large anti-Kostunica rally is expected to go ahead in Zagreb, organised by veterans of the 1991-92 Serb-Croat war and by sympathisers of the nationalist HDZ party of the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
The Croatian Government has denounced plans for the rally, and security is set to be tight with an additional 1,300 policemen protecting the area around the conference site.
Nevertheless, as was the case in similar recent international gatherings, much attention will be devoted to Yugoslavia, in part because it is enjoying a period of grace following the downfall of Milosevic.
But also because the international community and the countries neighbouring Yugoslavia are keen to find out more about how Belgrade will deal with issues such as Serbia's role in recent Balkan conflicts, and its co-operation with the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.
Yugoslavia expected to sever Milosevic link
Croatia expects the new Yugoslav leadership to use the summit to mark a clear break from Milosevic's policies.
The Croatian President, Stjepan Mesic, a former Yugoslav president himself, said recently that President Kostunica has so far failed to take control of the army and the police, which were key pillars of power for Milosevic.
Mesic also warned that Milosevic's recent appearance on television indicates that he has every intention to remain active in Yugoslav politics.
The U.N. War Crimes Tribunal has indicted Milosevic for alleged crimes committed in Kosovo, and many western countries, especially the United States, want him to be handed over to the international court.
Kostunica says he will co-operate with that tribunal (which is expected to open an office in Belgrade), but refuses to extradite Milosevic, saying he would have to be tried in Serbia first, but not in the near future.
The Zagreb summit will not only focus on Yugoslavia.
EU officials have said publicly that aid to Yugoslavia will not exclude or deprive promised assistance to other states. Privately, however, some officials admit that priorities have changed. They say that during this summit, each country will be dealt with individually, and that assistance will be tailored to specific needs.
Discussions could be overshadowed by recent clashes between ethnic Albanian separatists and Serb police on the administrative border between Kosovo and Serbia proper.
Four Serb policemen were killed in what is the most serious escalation of violence in the area.
Belgrade has accused ethnic Albanians of attacking Serb areas outside Kosovo, and warned that if the international community does not intervene to secure the area it will have to send its own troops to do the job.
The U.N. Security Council condemned the attack. The NATO-led KFOR troops in Kosovo made some arrests and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called upon the leaders of Kosovo to denounce the violence.
Fears for future in Kosovo
NATO in Kosovo
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