Top foreign policy officials of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia are in Washington for discussions with U.S. officials on NATO membership and regional cooperation. The three officials say they will work together to win membership in both NATO and the European Union.
At last year's NATO summit in Prague the three countries joined with the United States to form the Adriatic partnership to push their drive for NATO membership. All three countries are part of NATO's partnership for peace. And all three have contributed troops to peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan or Iraq.
In a joint appearance at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center the foreign policy, officials from Albania, Croatia and Macedonia said Balkan countries must be included in Euro-Atlantic institutions. They outlined their countries efforts to meet both NATO and European Union membership requirements.
Croatian Deputy Foreign Minister Ivan Simonovic said his country hopes to start formal negotiations to join the European Union at the end of 2004. He is hopeful that with its now thriving economy Croatia will be able to catch up with Bulgaria and Romania, who could join the EU as early as 2007.
?We believe it is achievable. Although definitely we do not want to postpone Bulgaria and Romania, we intend to be fast enough to catch up but not to slow them down,? he said.
Albania's acting foreign minister, Luan Hajdaraga, voiced support for a just-unveiled U.S. initiative that could lead to final status negotiations for Kosovo as early as 2005.
?Kosovo can not remain isolated and be like a gap or a black hole in the region, in southeastern Europe,? he said. ?So it is very important to help Kosovo fulfill the standards [of self-governance set by the international community] and after that the final status of Kosovo.?
Kosovo is the 90 percent Albanian-populated Serbian province currently administered by the United Nations. Kosovar Albanians favor independence. Serbia opposes it.
Macedonian foreign minister Ilinka Mitreva said her country is making progress in integrating its Albanian minority into mainstream structures. She said the government is about to decentralize some decision-making, a move called for in the framework agreement that ended near civil war in Macedonia two years ago. With some political parties advocating a territorial separation between Albanians and Macedonians, Ms. Metreva voiced opposition to changing national borders anywhere in the region.
?Cooperation and integration, yes. But changing borders in the Balkans could lead to new conflicts and catastrophe,? she said.
The three foreign policy officials pledged increased cooperation to combat smuggling and human trafficking in the Balkans.