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Balkan States Aim at Regional Cooperation - 2003-06-20

When European leaders gather for their semi-annual meeting in Greece, ways to promote regional cooperation in the Balkans will be a principal subject on the agenda.

The EU plan for eventual membership for the western Balkans sets regional cooperation as an initial requirement. This means free movement of people and goods, guarantees for foreign investment, and an aggressive campaign against the corruption that is such a huge problem throughout the Balkans.

Prospective investors attending a conference in Montenegro are cautious. They are attracted to the Balkan region of 60 million people that extends from Croatia and Serbia to the Black Sea, but they are worried about political instability and the capacity of fragile governments to overcome corruption.

Progress is slow and tentative. But Gene Krasniqi, an Albanian lawyer, detects a new willingness to focus on common problems.

"We pretty much share the same common problems among Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia," he said. "We are basically going through the same phases, stages and experience. And cooperation, exchange of ideas, I think this is the key to success, besides putting a lot of effort into projects by ourselves."

In Montenegro the government points to a proven record of political stability and a determination to make the new, looser federation with Serbia succeed. Commercial banker Vladimir Zecar from Atlas Banka believes the government is at last ready to relinquish its economic dominance and privatize enterprises.

"Here in Montenegro that would be primarily hotels and the tourism sector," he said. "Because of the natural resources Montenegro has to offer, I think it would be one of the first sectors [to be privatized]. But in addition, I think it is important to have some investment in infrastructure."

But ethnic passions are still strong. Last sunday they boiled over during a sporting event between croatia and serbia, resulting in violence and substantial property damage. But this has not broken a mutual commitment for a resumption of visaless travel between the two neighbors.

Balkan countries are eager to join the European Union, and they say they will comply with EU requirements for closer cooperation. Gene Krasniqi, the Albanian lawyer, believes a shared commitment to Europe will overcome ethnic hostility.

"Racial matters, nationalistic feelings seem to have put out of the vision," he said. "We are moving towards the same path. So I would say that five to six years from today we will be sitting next to each other, forgetting that we speak different languages and we come from different cultures. The euro [currency] and English [language] will get us together."

Practical economic matters must also be addressed. For Mr. Krasniqi to travel to Montenegro from Albania he had to travel over rutted roads that only with difficulty can handle the heavy trucks that are indispensable to trade. Although the European Union and the United States are providing substantial economic aid, several projects are moving slowly because of local corruption.