The Washington Times

To judge by my own reaction, perceptions are lagging reality a bit when it comes to the former Yugoslavia. The beautiful lakeside town of Ohrid, Macedonia, was the scene this weekend of a conference bringing together leading officials from the Balkans. The years of upheaval in the former Yugoslavia, all agree, are past. The horrible, bloody and uncertain decade of the 1990s is over. The lives and the opportunity for progress lost are to be mourned. But it is time to move forward, and that was the agenda at Ohrid.

In May of this year in Tirana, Albania, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the foreign ministers of Macedonia, Albania and Croatia signed a document called the Adriatic Charter, a mutual pledge on the part of the A-3 [as the group is known] to work cooperatively on solutions to regional problems. But more than that, the Adriatic Charter was the next step toward the integration of the nations now occupying the territory of the former Yugoslavia into the Euro-Atlantic institutions that are essential to their ability to rise from the ashes of their recent past. The journey toward entry into the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union [EU] passed through Ohrid this weekend.

NATO is generally regarded as the first step, simply because coming into conformity with the entry criteria of the EU takes time and huge reform efforts across a vast array of policy areas. NATO, by contrast, is a military alliance among countries who share the same democratic and liberal governing principles and pledge themselves to work collectively in the defense of each member. But NATO is not merely a military alliance. It is a certification of security and stability that in turn paves the way for economic development. Nor should the longer accession process of the EU obscure the work the EU is already doing in the region, for example in providing funds for rebuilding the stunning outdoor amphitheater at Ohrid, as well as for improvements in the main road from the capital, Skopje, some 170 miles away.

The real question posed by the A-3 is this: Will the vision of “Europe whole and free” that has led to the enlargement of the NATO alliance by 10 countries since the end of the Cold War – and to the scheduled accession of 10 new members of the European Union – extend to all of Europe, including the Balkans in the southeast? Or will “Europe” refer to a core of nations fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic, along with a periphery, in a kind of twilight zone of underdevelopment, stagnation and the potential for the recurrence of instability and violence?

The successful rounds of enlargement of NATO and the EU show that progress is possible, even in countries that face very grave challenges. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, recalled in his keynote address the hard case of Latvia, the newly independent Baltic state whose population includes a very substantial Russian minority. Russia itself stood in opposition to NATO enlargement, especially into the territory of the former Soviet Union. Yet Latvia managed to deal with a situation in which ethnic Russians actually constitute majority populations in its seven largest cities; it is now a NATO member and will shortly join the EU.

The Adriatic Charter took as its model the Baltic Charter of 1998. In it, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania pledged to work together on regional problems. At the time, few expected progress in the Baltics to come as fast as it has.

The Ohrid conference addressed the Adriatic Charter’s implementation. Cooperation is not the first word anyone thinks of in relation to the Balkans. Yet the three readily agreed to an initiative in support of President Bush’s newly announced campaign against sexual trafficking, a serious issue in the region. And, themselves already on the NATO track, they pledged their support for the speedy entry of the other two states of the former Yugoslavia – Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina – into the Partnership for Peace program [often a NATO precursor] and the Membership Action Plan [the stage at which the A-3 find themselves, which if successful leads to an invitation to join the alliance].

The overwhelming sentiment of the conference was that the A-3 should become the A-5 as soon as possible; if the charter is to be effective in pursuit of regional integration and cooperation, it makes no sense to leave out two of the players, especially when, as was apparent in Ohrid, they are eager to engage.

The nations of the former Yugoslavia have had enough trouble from their past; the United States and its partners in Europe need to avoid decisions that will keep them mired in it. The stakes for the 10 million people of the A-3 – and 24 million in all of the former Yugoslavia – could not be higher. These countries have a lot of hard work ahead of them. Our job is much simpler. As the Romanian foreign minister, Mircea Geoana, characterized it in Ohrid, it’s to go “as far as we can possibly go with our values.”