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Bit Players Become 'Frontline' States

Rexhep Meidani, Albanian president Rexhep Mejdani, Albania's president, talks about the Balkan situation and its impact on his country. (Lois Raimondo — The Washington Post)

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  • The Nightmare That Wasn't

  • By Vernon Loeb
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Saturday, April 24, 1999; Page A19

    Five Balkan states surrounding Yugoslavia have been transformed by the war in Kosovo from bit players to "frontline" nations at this weekend's NATO summit, drawn toward center stage by their critical role in facilitating military operations and absorbing waves of refugees.

    Officials from the five states Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia arrived at the summit with deep concerns about their own future stability as NATO bombing against Yugoslavia enters its fifth week. But the war over Kosovo has only heightened their interest in joining NATO as soon as the alliance is ready for another round of expansion.

    Macedonia and Albania are working closely with NATO and international aid organizations trying to cope with almost 500,000 refugees. Bulgaria and Romania have granted NATO air rights to attack targets in Yugoslavia. And Slovenia has said it would allow NATO forces to cross its borders in the event of a ground invasion.

    "The frontline states now become the focal point of our strategy, not only vis-a-vis Kosovo, but as our last best hope for a post-Kosovo effort to stabilize this region," said Ivo H. Daalder, former director of European affairs at the National Security Council and now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

    Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, meeting with foreign ministers from the five countries Thursday night, said the Clinton administration has asked Congress for $600 million in humanitarian, economic and security assistance for the region. She also noted that the United States has provided $178 million to international aid organizations working to cope with the refugee crisis.

    "NATO will stick with you," Albright said.

    None of the frontline states is more threatened than Macedonia, a desperately poor country the size of Vermont, with a population of 2.2 million. Its delicate ethnic balance about a quarter of the country is ethnic Albanian has been imperiled by an influx of more than 132,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo.

    "This influx of refugees, being accommodated without shelter in Macedonia, can create for us not only economic and social problems and tensions, it can create even political problems and threaten our stability," Foreign Minister Aleksandar Dimitrov said in an interview. "We need stronger support and stronger assistance in the framework of burden sharing with the European Union and NATO."

    Macedonia has flatly rejected the use of its soil as a staging area for a possible ground invasion. But Dimitrov said his country badly wants to be admitted into the NATO alliance and will continue cooperating with NATO throughout the Kosovo crisis, to the extent possible.

    Albania, a country slightly smaller than Maryland beset by extreme poverty and underdevelopment, has watched as 360,000 ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo more than 10 percent of its own population of 3.5 million have streamed across the border. Like Macedonia, Albania seeks admission into NATO. But unlike its neighbor to the east, Albania has no qualms about offering itself as a staging ground for a NATO ground invasion of Kosovo, which it strongly supports.

    "We'll support and we'll respond positively to any demand of NATO," President Rexhep Mejdani said in an interview, calling the crisis in Kosovo a contest between "barbarity on one side and freedom on the other, a contest between the past and the future, and I think the future will win."

    Mejdani said he realizes gaining NATO membership is a process that will take time. "But I've expressed clearly this is our dream, the dream of the Albanian people to be integrated into the European Union and NATO."

    Romania, a country of 22 million, finds itself buffeted by the war as well, although the blows it has absorbed thus far are primarily economic. "We are very badly situated," said Foreign Minister Andrei Gabriel Plesu, who arrived in Washington determined to make his nation's case for NATO membership.

    Of particular concern to Romania, Plesu said, is European river traffic. NATO's bombing of bridges across the Danube River in Yugoslavia has paralyzed commercial traffic along the European waterway and blocked Yugoslavia as a transport route, requiring Romania to find longer ways to get goods to Western Europe.

    "We are losing $30 [million] to $50 million a week," Plesu said. "Some 110 ships have been blocked and don't circulate anymore because traffic on the Danube has been closed down."

    Bulgaria, like the other "frontline" states, comes to Washington hoping to capitalize on its sudden importance, seeking NATO membership and an expanded role in regional security. "Our efforts are larger than to find short-term solutions to the Kosovo crisis," Deputy Defense Minister Velizar Shalamanov said in an interview. "Our larger goal is to be producer of stability in the Balkans."

    Shalamanov said the war in Kosovo has had a chilling effect on Bulgarian citizens, who oppose the war but support NATO's ultimate aims because of opposition to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

    Slovenia, a former Yugoslav republic considered the strongest candidate for NATO membership, comes to Washington hoping to play the part of role model.

    "Certainly Slovenia can be a good example for everybody," Prime Minister Janez Drnovsek said, noting that his country has built a solid democratic footing since declaring its independence in 1991.

    Staff writers Sari Horwitz, Cheryl W. Thompson and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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