BALKAN REGIONAL PROFILE:
THE SECURITY SITUATION AND THE REGION-BUILDING EVOLUTION OF SOUTH-EASTERN EUROPE
(A Background and March 2002 Issue in Brief)
Research Study 35, 2002
Hard copy: ISSN 1311 - 3240
AN I S N-SPONSORED MONTHLY ELECTRONIC PERIODICAL
The events and processes that could be observed in Southeastern Europe in March proved the persistence of several lasting trends:
First, terrorism is a security risk that has established covert strongholds on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina and continues to politically exploit the conflict in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). At the same time, the countries of Southeastern Europe are engaged to varying degrees in the fight against this global evil.
Second, the real need to react adequately to the threat of terrorism has given a strong impetus to the preparations for NATO membership in many Balkan countries – in addition to highlighting the need for a complete transition to democracy and a functioning market economy. Hungary's declared support for the Greek-Turkish sponsorship of Bulgaria's and Romania's NATO membership shows the southern dimension in the ongoing expansion of NATO.
Geopolitical factors and the requirements of the counter-terrorist campaign overlap logically in Southeastern Europe and provide a rationale for the US government's policy for enlarging NATO.
Third, the modest efforts by Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey to promote oil and natural gas transportation projects reflect a rising hope that the neighboring Black Sea and Caspian Sea regions will have a better chance for resources to reach the Southern European and world markets.
Fourth, the aftershocks of the five Balkan wars of the last decade continued in the Western Balkans, as did the EU's efforts to shape adequate instruments for dealing with the specific mixture of problems of a retarded modernization and continuing ethnic and political antagonisms.
There was more evidence in March that Bosnia and Herzegovina has been a safe haven for al-Qaida, but things are worsening for the terrorists and their hosts. This month, a Bosnian branch of a Saudi-based charitable foundation was targeted by counter-terrorist investigators. Turkey will take over the leadership of the Afghanistan peacekeeping force ISAF from Great Britain, although not quite on schedule, after having received substantial US financial support.
In FYROM, the difficult process of implementing the Ohrid peace agreement continued. Albanian rebels are preparing for a spring offensive and are attacking other ethnic Albanians who prefer to assert their rights in a non-violent way. An additional complication in the FYROM security situation has arisen since the new Kosovo government announced its intention to re-arrange the borders between the Serbian province and FYROM. The stabilizing effect of NATO policy was seen in the declaration that stated no relations would be established with the so-called Albanian Coordination Council – a body that politically coordinates all Albanian organizations on the basis of ethnicity. NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson met with Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski in Brussels and encouraged him to finally adopt the long-waited Amnesty Law. The decision of the donors’ meeting for FYROM to extend financial support will benefit the people and the government of FYROM over the next years, provided the peace process is continued effectively. In another development, the EU may take over the NATO mission in FYROM in the autumn of this year.
Kosovo finally has a government of its own, in addition to the UNMIK administration. One of its first measures was to collect the arms remaining in the population.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, an unsuccessful attempt was made to arrest war criminal Radovan Karadzic. This country is still lagging behind terms of refugee repatriation, strengthening the state institutions, and in terms of judicial, defense and economic reforms.
A significant step was made in March towards ending the last incarnation of the Yugoslav state, the Former Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), and replacing it with a new state encompassing Serbia and Montenegro. However, opposition to this option in Montenegro was severe and Podgorica persists in demanding independence. The government of Serbia was dealt a hard blow when deputy prime minister Momcilo Perisic was arrested by the military police after being charged with espionage for the US. This event gives weight to previous warnings issued by ISIS in October 2000 that the reform of civil-military relations after Milosevic would encounter severe difficulties.
Greek-Turkish relations experienced a positive shift as more constructive tendencies became apparent than had previously been the case. Greek-Bulgarian relations entered a more active stage in the economic sphere, and Romanian-Bulgarian relations proved a capacity to form a strategic attraction to NATO. The support provided by Greece and Turkey to Sofia and Bucharest in their drive to NATO membership creates new opportunities of changing the security situation of the Balkans in the longer-term and of turning the region into a calm, peaceful and well-guarded part of Europe. In other regional developments, the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe demonstrated a will to change into a working and practical instrument of a stabilizing EU policy in coordination with other participants engaged in the Pact.
The EU continued to transform its mechanism of assistance for the Western Balkans, the Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development and Stabilization (CARDS) program. NATO continued to monitor the level of preparation for membership in the applicant countries.
Russia and Bulgaria warmed up their bilateral relations after the exchange of high-level delegations. The US actively supported the preparations of Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia for joining NATO.
The efforts made by each individual country towards normalizing the region as part of Europe and towards improving the living conditions of the population remain a key factor in the region-building activities.
a) Al-Qaida Link in Bosnia. (1) US counter-terrorist agencies announced on 11 March they have blocked the assets of the Bosnia and Herzegovina branches of a Saudi-based charitable foundation called Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. The US claims to have evidence that money from this organization in Bosnia was diverted to support terrorist activities and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida and others. (2) From 21-22 March, the US embassy in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was closed to the public and remained closed through the weekend. All US embassies have the right to review their security and re-evaluate it, if necessary.
b) Turkey. The US has offered Turkey US$228 million in aid to help defray the cost of taking command of ISAF in Afghanistan. Turkey will probably replace the UK as leader of the international peacekeeping force in May.
a) FYROM. (1) On 6 March, the parliament of FYROM adopted the Amnesty Law, an important step towards the implementation of the Ohrid Framework Agreement and a major factor of reconciliation and peace in this country. This political step was highly appreciated by the US, NATO and the EU. 64 MPs of the 120-seat parliament voted in favor of the law, 12 voted against and 8 abstained. The amnesty covers crimes committed during and related to the conflict by ethnic Albanian rebels who voluntarily disarmed under NATO supervision before 26 September 2001. It also applies to those who have already been jailed. It excludes crimes that may be the basis of indictments by the UN war crimes tribunal, which since last year has been investigating the involvement of both Macedonian and ethnic Albanian forces in incidents during the conflict. (2) The International Donors’ Conference for Macedonia granted a total of over €550 million in aid to Skopje in Brussels on 12 March. This money is expected to reduce the budgetary deficit and to enable the provision of funds to administration accounts. Part of the sum will be used to finance the reconstruction of housing and of infrastructure destroyed during the fighting, as well as the establishment of necessary institutions for the maintenance of multi-ethnic democracy. The donors’ conference was chaired by the European Commission and by the European Bank. On the same day, FYROM Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski met with NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson in Brussels. FYROM is an applicant country to NATO. (3) NATO announced On 17 March that it did not intend to establish relations with the so-called Coordination Council of the Albanians in Macedonia, created by the former commander of the Albanian National Liberation Army, Ali Ahmeti. Robertson reminded the Albanians not to preserve parallel political structures in contravention of the Ohrid Agreement. In a letter to Ahmeti, the NATO Secretary-General called on him to join the process of confidence building in FYROM. (4) On 26 March, factions of the illegal Albanian National Army (ANA) opened fire on Albanians supporting Ali Ahmeti in the region of Tetovo, killing one and wounding five. This incident followed the arrival of regular, ethnically mixed police forces under international supervision. The ANA considers Albanians who agree with the peaceful resolution of the conflict traitors to the “Albanian cause”. (5) The EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, said on 23 March in Zaragoza, Spain, that the EU aims to take over peacekeeping duties in FYROM from NATO in September, but only if EU reaches a deal on access to NATO’s planning facilities. NATO is currently implementing Operation Amber Fox, launched in September 2001 for the purpose of protecting international monitors observing the return of government forces and displaced people to areas formerly controlled by ethnic Albanian rebels after their insurgency.
b) Kosovo. (1) The first democratically elected government of Kosovo was formed on 4 March following the general elections in November 2001. The ethnic Albanian leader of the Democratic League of Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova, was elected President of Kosovo, and Bajram Rexhepi, a senior member of the Democratic Party of Kosovo, was elected as Prime Minister. Kosovo has been under UN rule since the end of the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia in June 1999; this step represents a significant move towards democracy and provisional self-governance under UN Security Council Resolution 1244. UNMIK will eventually transfer authority to Kosovo’s elected representatives. During this process, the international community will expect Kosovo’s new leaders to use their authority to foster institutions of self-governance that are inclusive, accountable and efficient, and to build a society based upon the principles of freedom, equality and tolerance. The deal was agreed after the successful mediation of Kosovo’s new UN governor Michael Steiner, breaking months-long stalemate. Ibrahim Rugova was elected in the parliament of Kosovo with 88 votes in favor, 3 against and 15 abstentions. (2) A voluntary campaign of returning arms began in Kosovo on 14 March. The law was adopted by UNMIK chief Michael Steiner on 1 March and provides amnesty to anyone handing in their arms by 15 April. Violators can be sentenced to up to 8 years in prison and a €7'500 fine.
c) Bosnia and Herzegovina. (1) NATO troops failed to find former Bosnian Serb leader alleged war criminal Radovan Karadzic during a raid on a Bosnian village on 28 February. However, the NATO-led SFOR is determined to catch him and another indicted war criminal, General Ratko Mladic. (2) In mid-March, NATO’s policy-making body of 19 ambassadors met for the first time with Bosnia’s three presidents, representing the country’s Croat, Muslim and Serb populations, at NATO headquarters in Brussels. The NATO diplomats said Bosnia and Herzegovina must begin to wean itself from dependency on foreign peacekeepers. They also said ethnic groups in the region needed to work more closely together, begin centralizing institutions and cooperate more with the ICTY in The Hague. (3) The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe (CE) decided on 26 March to invite Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the CE as its 44th member-state. The accession ceremony is scheduled to take place in Strasbourg during the Parliamentary Assembly’s session from 22-26 April. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership on 10 April 1995. Bosnia and Herzegovina is expected to strengthen its state institutions, to complete the return of refugees and to carry out the necessary economic, judicial and defense reforms.
Acting within a national and institutional consensus, Bulgarian President Georgi Parvanov spoke with parliamentary opposition leaders on 5 March about the country’s preparedness to join NATO at its summit in Prague later this year. The UDF opposition leaders demand the president’s support in adopting legislation by June in four areas: crisis management, the secret services, classified information, and strengthening of arms exports and control of dual-use technology. The Bulgarian political leaders and the expert community are confident Bulgaria can contribute to raising NATO's security capabilities in the Balkan-Black Sea region, for example by safeguarding the flow of oil and gas westward from the Caspian Sea energy reservoir. With the stabilization of the geopolitical situation of Central Asia, Bulgaria will be better prepared to be the fourth gate to Europe for the Caspian Sea energy resources.
(1) The leaders of Serbia and Montenegro reached an agreement on 14 March concerning the future of the Yugoslav federation. The presidents of the federation and of the smaller constituent republic, Vojislav Kostunica and Milo Djukanovic, acceded to the insistence of the EU, encouraged by the US, that there should be a democratic Montenegro within a democratic Yugoslavia. If the parliaments of the two constituent republics accept the agreement, the name of the new state will be “Serbia and Montenegro” and the last version of former Yugoslavia will cease to exist by the summer of this year. The independence advocates in Montenegro will not accept any other resolution of the issue than a referendum. The supporters of the last agreement are concerned that debating the issue in the parliaments will eventually kill the political potential of the EU-brokered document. Analysts already sense inconsistencies in the agreement concerning the economic integration of the two republics. One of the possible political consequences of this agreement, conceived to bring more stability to the broader Balkan region, may be a governmental and parliamentary crisis in Montenegro. (2) The deputy prime minister of Serbia and former chief of the General Staff of Yugoslavia, Momcilo Perisic, was arrested on 14 March in a Belgrade restaurant by the military police. An American diplomat was detained for 17 hours by the same police officers, despite his diplomatic immunity. Perisic was accused of espionage for the US. He was released two days later. Calling himself the victim of a treacherous plan, Perisic resigned. According to Yugoslav military sources, Perisic handed over secret documents incriminating the former president of FRY, Slobodan Milosevic, as a war criminal. Perisic was chief of the General Staff of FRY until he resigned in November 1998 because of his opposition to Belgrade's policy in Kosovo. This event confirms earlier conclusions by ISIS that the FRY military is still unreformed and that the handover of Serbian war criminals will remain a stumbling-block in the transition process to democracy in this Western Balkan country. On 31 March, a US-imposed deadline expired for FRY to hand over suspects to the UN ICTY in The Hague and to demonstrate its cooperation with the court. The alternative would be a freeze in economic aid provided or facilitated by Washington.
(1) On 21 March, the Croatian military police detained an army officer and two others alleged to have killed a prisoner-of-war in the Serbo-Croatian conflict in the early 1990s. All three were members of the Croatian army when they allegedly killed an ethnic Serb prisoner trying to escape. (2) The Croatian parliament approved three new cabinet ministers on 21 March, formally ending a government crisis that threatened to break up the ruling five-party coalition and bring early elections to the country. Early elections could delay reforms and bring the hard-line opposition back into power.
a) Greece-Turkey. The two countries are preparing to sign a pact within the next weeks that would link them with a natural gas pipeline from Iran and the Caspian Sea into Europe. According to Greek Ministry of Development sources, the pipeline would run from Ankara to Komotini in northeastern Greece. It will be an extension of the existing pipeline running from Iran to the Turkish capital. Greek Development Minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos is expected to visit Turkey and conclude the deal. Greece will use the natural gas for its own consumption, but also will export it to Italy. (2) Bilateral talks over long-disputed territorial issues began on 12 March in Ankara. These talks are part of a comprehensive and difficult process of rapprochement between the two countries.
b) Bulgaria-FYROM. (1) The foreign ministers of the two countries, Solomon Passy and Slobodan Casule, signed a letter on 4 March in Sofia addressed to the Pact of Stability for Southeastern Europe and to international financial institutions to provide support for completing an 80-year-old project: the railway between Sofia and Skopje. Later this month, Passy personally lobbied for support of this project in Washington, DC. (2) Macedonian Chief of General Staff General Metodi Stamboliski visited the 5th Artillery Brigade Corps in Samokov, Bulgaria, on 13 March. During his visit, he discussed the joint preparations for integrating in NATO with his Bulgarian counterpart, General Miho Mihov. (3) On 28-29 March, Macedonian Interior Minister Liube Bozhkovsky visited Sofia and met with his counterpart Georgi Petkanov.
c) Romania-Bulgaria. (1) Bulgarian Prime Minister Simeon Coburgotski visited Romania from 9-10 March and met with his counterpart Adrian Nastase as well as President Ion Iliescu. The two leaders pledged to back each other in the process of admission to NATO and to hold permanent consultations on the issue until the Prague summit in November this year. The prime ministers agreed to focus their economic cooperation in the fields of energy and transport infrastructure as well as to continue working together to cope with environmental issues. (2) The defense ministers of Romania and Bulgaria announced on 22 March that with support from Turkey and Greece, they would join forces in their efforts to NATO entry. The total population of the two countries is around 30 million and their armies are the biggest among NATO applicants.
d) Bulgaria-Greece. After Greek Prime Minister Kostas Simitis' visit to Bulgaria in January, three more Greek governmental officials visited Sofia: Minister of Public Order Michalis Chrisohoidis, Minister for Macedonia and Thrace Georgios Pashalidis, and Minister of Regional Development Akis Tsohatzopoulos. These visits were intended to give an impulse to delayed trans-border projects, including the construction of checkpoints as well as economic issues. In May, Coburgotski is expected to visit Greece.
e) FYROM-Albania. During the Vilnius Group meeting of the NATO applicants in Bucharest on 25 March, the prime ministers of these two countries, Ljubco Georgievski and Pandeli Maiko met to discuss the implementation of the Pact of Stability for Southeastern Europe. They underlined the importance of the infrastructure projects in the context of the Pact. The Macedonian leader informed his Albanian counterpart of the implementation of the Ohrid Agreement by the conflicting sides of the conflict in his country.
The foreign ministers of the four neighboring Balkan states gathered again on 29 March, this time in Athens. Prior to the meeting on 25 March, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit argued that NATO expansion in the south was critical to the region’s security because of international crime and instability in places like Macedonia. He told the press there had been a lack of dialogue between Greece and Turkey, but that they were both interested in preserving the stability of the region. He stressed that NATO expansion could not be limited to Northern and Central Europe. Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi said in Sofia during his visit to Bulgaria on 6 March that Hungary supports the Istanbul Declaration of 13 February on NATO's enlargement southeastward.
The new coordinator of the Pact for Stability, Erhard Busek, called on the EU on 11 March to design and launch a new strategy to the Balkans for the next years, during which period ten Eastern European countries will join the EU. Busek informed the foreign ministers of the EU member-states about the priorities of the Pact for 2002: the return of some 10'000 refugees, a crackdown on illegal arms trafficking, and the conclusion of agreements for the creation of a free trade zone in the region. To bolster the fight against illegal trafficking of small arms and light weapons (SALW), a clearing-house for SALW was opened in Belgrade on 27 March under the auspices of the UN. Its task will be to pool information and data on the issue.
During his visit to Bulgaria this month, Greek Minister for Regional Development Akis Tsohatzopoulos discussed the progress of the Burgas-Alexandroupolis oil pipe-line project with his Bulgarian counterpart and deputy prime minister Kostadin Paskalev. The two sides are close to agreement on the how the profits should be divided among the three actors in the project: Russia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Athens has already ordered the construction of the tankers that will transport the oil. The pipeline will be 282km long, 167km of which will pass through Bulgarian territory.
Bulgaria is expected to export arms and ammunitions worth US$300 million in 2002, Deputy Minister of Economy Milen Keremidchiev announced on 26 March. The profits would be double those in 2000, he said. The government official also said this trade was in full compliance with Bulgaria’s international legal and political obligations derived from the country's membership in the UN, OSCE, the Wassenaar Arrangement, NATO, EU and the Pact of Stability. The US is providing technological and organizational support in the restructuring of the Bulgarian armaments industry to meet NATO standards.
a) EU-Western Balkans. The European Commission is continuing its preparations for launching the CARDS (Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development and Stabilization) program – the new assistance mechanism for the Western Balkan countries. CARDS will replace Phare, Obnova, and other mechanisms that previously covered the region in different ways. The total aid budget for the Western Balkans until 2006 is set at €4.65 billion.
b) EU-Bulgaria. (1) The Bulgarian government has decided to open all chapters of its accession negotiations with the EU and to complete the process by the end of 2003, Bulgarian Prime Minister Coburgotski told participants at the 3d Round Table convened by “The Economist” magazine on 5 March in Sofia. (2) Progress was made in the fight against crime and corruption in Bulgaria during the visit of the Chief Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, Boiko Borisov, and of Deputy Minister of Interior Boiko Kotsev to Scotland Yard in London in the first days of March. (3) At a Wilton Park Conference in Sofia from 19-20 March, Bulgaria's Foreign Minister Solomon Passy criticized the decision of Brussels to leave Bulgaria and Romania out of the first round of EU enlargement. No country had finished its negotiations when the EU took the decision, said Passy, which contradicts the principle of equality in EU enlargement. (4) Bulgaria opened the last two chapters of its accession negotiations with the EU in Brussels on 21 March. They were “Economic and Currency Union” and “Agriculture”. Bulgaria has completed 14 chapters of its negotiations with the EU. (5) The Report of the Foreign Policy and Defense Commission of the European Parliament, in which clear support was voiced for Bulgaria’s application to NATO, was published on 25 March. This document is unique in that for the first time, a European institution has given support to five out of the 10 NATO membership candidates, namely Bulgaria, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states.
a) NATO-Bulgaria. (1) NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Günter Altenburg visited Bulgaria from 10-14 March. He and his team prepared a report on Bulgaria’s accession progress. After discussing the outcomes of this report with the Bulgarian side in April, a comprehensive report will be prepared for the Reykjavik meeting of the NATO foreign ministers in mid-May. (2) SACEUR General Joseph Ralston visited Sofia from 18-19 April, focusing on the military reform within the Membership Action Plan process. He said he was very pleased with Bulgaria’s progress, even though a lot remained to be done.
b) NATO-Russia-Southeastern Europe. The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council met at ambassadorial level on 20 March in Brussels and discussed the security situation in the Balkans. They addressed the evolving peace process in FYROM, exchanged views on their cooperation within KFOR and reiterated their full commitment to building a democratic, multiethnic society in Kosovo.
c) NATO-The Vilnius Group of NATO Candidates. (1) The foreign ministers of the Vilnius Group met in Skopje on 8 March. The group includes the nine NATO applicant countries plus Croatia. The foreign ministers of Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic as well as senior US and NATO officials were also invited. The joint declaration by the foreign ministers of the candidate countries expressed the common spirit and desire for an extensive expansion of NATO in the fall of this year and for continuation of the open-door policy after the Prague summit. The declaration called for NATO's formal acceptance of Croatia into the MAP process. (2) A summit meeting of the Vilnius Group countries at the prime ministers’ level, called “Spring of New Allies”, was convened in Bucharest from 25-26 March. US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said at the meeting Washington wants the “most robust possible” NATO expansion late this year. The Bucharest meeting of the Vilnius hopefuls gave the signal that seven of the candidate countries have excellent prospects of being invited to join NATO - Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania - while Albania and FYROM will press on with their MAP obligations. A lot of work will remain for the seven invitees even after the Prague summit of the North Atlantic Council – to complete their reforms, privatize the industry, lower inflation, increase economic growth, upgrade the military and, in some cases, fight corruption and crime and raise the effectiveness of the judicial system. Both US President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair addressed the participants of the Bucharest meeting and urged them to accelerate their preparations for joining NATO.
d) NATO-Croatia. Croatia expects to be asked to join the NATO’s Membership Action Plan in May at the Reykjavik meeting of the NATO foreign ministers, Reuters reported on 7 March. On 20 March, the Croatian parliament approved a package of laws on the defense system. Defense Minister Jozo Rados told Croatian media these conditions were necessary for the restructuring of the military apparatus.
a) US-Croatia. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) launched an Internet service on 1 March in Osijek, a Croatian city with a population of 121'000. This will allow citizens to use e-mail to access public information and communicate with their elected officials for the first time. USAID has also formed a new partnership with the municipality of Dvor to promote reconciliation of ethnic Croats and Serbs and to revitalize the economy and improve community services.
b) US-Bulgaria. (1) The foreign minister of Bulgaria, Solomon Passy, made an official visit to the US from 9-13 March and met with US Secretary of State Colin Powell. They discussed NATO enlargement, bilateral ties and the joint fight against terrorism. Passy also met with the deputy national security advisor to President George Bush, Stephen Hadley, with Senator Richard Lugar, with members of Congress and with former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. Passy's visit was also in preparation for the visit of the Bulgarian prime minister to the US and his meeting with President Bush on 23 April. (2) The US Senate has confirmed James Pardew as the new Ambassador of the US to Sofia, Bulgaria. During his testimony on 14 March, the Ambassador-designate said that the US and Bulgaria have important common interests in the Balkans: peace and stability, the development of democracy and economic prosperity, and the eventual integration of those countries into the Euro-Atlantic institutions. (3) On 12 March, General Peter Pace, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US armed forces, made a short visit to Bulgaria and visited two air force bases in Krumovo and Graf Ignatievo. Another group of US military experts visited Bulgaria on 18 March.
c) US-Romania. On 12 March, Pace visited Romania and met with political and defense leaders, who confirmed their country’s determination to develop relations with the US and intensify their efforts to integrate into NATO.
d) US-FRY. Yugoslav military policemen arrested a First Secretary of the US embassy in Belgrade on 14 March and detained him for 17 hours despite his diplomatic immunity. Three days later, the Foreign Ministry of FRY apologized for the arrest.
* Russia-Bulgaria. (1) Speaker of the Russian Duma Gennadii Seleznev visited Bulgaria from 2-4 March for high-level meetings. (2) The two countries signed a visa agreement in Sofia on 5 March that will facilitate better bilateral relations.
The two meetings of the Vilnius Group of NATO candidates in two Balkan capitals and the clear prospects in certain Southeastern European countries for NATO and EU membership have brought the region closer to a functioning security community. This empowers the individual countries in their stance against terrorism and diminishes the chances of those who are fanning the flames of ethnic conflicts in the Western Balkans. Much work remains to be done before the countries in the region can fulfill the national tasks on their way to effective democracy and market economy.