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The Long Road to Balkan Reconciliation

Congratulatory speeches by European leaders in Zagreb gloss over obstacles still plaguing Balkan reconciliation
By Dragutin Hedl

European leaders gathering in Zagreb last week for the historic European Union, EU, Balkan summit were determinedly upbeat. French President Jacques Chirac said the summit "completed the reconciliation of our continent" started ten years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The summit, which brought together the heads of state and government leaders of the 15 EU member states, Croatia, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania, was indeed a breakthrough.

Originally conceived after the defeat of Croatia's nationalist government in January's general election, the summit took on a whole new dimension with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in neighbouring Yugoslavia in October.

New Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica was welcomed to Zagreb with much anticipation. His attendance, if not "completing" reconciliation, was at least a step in the right direction.

The Croatian government trod gently on the issue of Kostunica's visit, refusing to make his trip conditional on an apology for crimes committed during the war. Croatian President Stipe Mesic said to insist on such an apology was unrealistic at a time when Kostunica still did not control all the levers of power and when it was unclear in which direction Serbia would head after the December 23 general election.

But EU leaders have not concealed their disappointment at Kostunica's contribution to the gathering.

In his speech he failed to promise co-operation with the international war crimes tribunal - a precondition to any discussions on entry into the EU - and accused Brussels of co-responsibility for NATO attacks on Yugoslavia. He warned Montenegro any unilateral moves towards independence would be "disastrous" and criticised the international community for its failure to contain Albanian guerrillas operating out of Kosovo.

Against this, Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic, attending as a member of Kostunica's Yugoslav delegation and not as a head of state in his own right, described his country's present relationship with Serbia as "unsustainable" and announced plans for a Montenegrin referendum on the issue early next year.

But it was Kosovo which presented the assembled leaders with the clearest indication of how much has yet to be achieved. Attacks by Kosovo Albanian guerrillas on Serbian police forces in the Presevo valley, as well as fatal shootings and bomb attacks in Pristina, provided a fairly gloomy backdrop to the Zagreb talks.

As a concession to Belgrade, Kosovo Albanians were not directly represented in Zagreb. Instead Bernard Kouchner, chief of the United Nations Mission in Kosovo, attended. He warned those gathered that reconciliation in the province would take years. Kouchner described the divide between Albanian and non-Albanian as a "wall of blood".

For Croatia, at least one important victory was achieved at the summit. It was agreed the countries of the western Balkans would be able to seek entry to the EU as individual states, rather than as a group.

Convoys travel at the speed of the slowest vehicle and Zagreb was eager to avoid becoming hostage to those states lagging behind in the process of integration.

Albania appears to have the best prospects, followed by Macedonia. Both countries have already signed agreements on accession and stabilisation. Croatia comes next on the list and hopes to sign an accord within the next six months.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is furthest away from meeting the EU criteria.

Regional co-operation between the five western Balkan states has been set as a precondition by EU member states for entry into their coveted club.

Zagreb does not shy away from such commitments, but given the persistence of the nationalist right, the government is reluctant to publicise conciliatory overtures to its neighbours.

Ever since the Balkan summit was proposed earlier this year, the nationalist right in Croatia, grouped around the late president Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, has been warning the event would mark the rebirth of "Yugoslav associations".

The HDZ promised mass protests in Zagreb on November 24 against any new fraternity with Serbia. In fact only a few hundred demonstrators turned up to heckle Kostunica.

Meanwhile, 400 directors from Croatia's most important companies have travelled to Belgrade to re-establish business links with their Serbian counterparts, severed by the outbreak of war ten years ago. The two countries' economies are complementary and Croats are all too aware Yugoslavia offers a more promising export market than the West.

Belgrade for its part has announced a unilateral lifting of visa requirements for Croats wishing to visit. Zagreb has yet to announce a reciprocal arrangement. The rigid visa system has been a major obstacle to co-operation, especially in the economic sphere.

The Zagreb summit was clearly an important step towards reconciliation in the region, but myriad problems will have to be resolved before one can call the process "complete".

Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor.