- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 30, 2001

Croatias foreign minister yesterday warned the Bush administration that withdrawing U.S. troops from the Balkans would lead to instability and increased violence in the region.

Tonino Picula, in a telephone interview with The Washington Times from Budapest, said, "I do not think it´s possible for American troops to leave the region any time, in the short term at least."

Mr. Picula, who became foreign minister last year after the new reformist government won both the presidential and parliamentary elections, endorsed Secretary of State Colin Powell´s decision at the NATO ministers´ conference in Budapest this week to maintain U.S. troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina — although at reduced levels.

"The presence of the United States is vital" to the peace and security of the region, Mr. Picula said. He added that the United States "can reduce troops in Bosnia and Macedonia, but not leave those countries entirely."

Mr. Picula stressed that a full-scale withdrawal of U.S. troops would threaten the internal stability of neighboring Bosnia, which fought a bitter three-year civil war beginning in 1992. "It will not help the process of normalization within Bosnia," he said.

The foreign minister said his government openly welcomes a vigorous role by the United States in international affairs — especially in the Balkans.

"Thanks to its global position and global interests, is almost a neighboring nation to every country in the world," he said. He predicted the Bush administration "will not leave Bosnia."

Under the new reformist government in Zagreb, Croatia has emerged from the international isolation of the nationalist regime led by former President Franjo Tudjman, who led the country in its successful drive for independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Mr. Tudjman was criticized by Western governments for his authoritarian rule and especially his desire to carve up Bosnia with former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Mr. Picula praised the United States for supporting the new government´s agenda of democratic and economic reform. "We are very happy with the support of the United States," the foreign minister said.

Yet he acknowledged that more needed to be done to promote U.S. foreign investment in Croatia. The country´s unemployment rate is 23 percent and its foreign debt is nearly $10 billion.

Mr. Picula said that the greatest change from the previous regime is the new government´s pro-Western orientation. He stressed that Croatia´s "two major foreign policy goals are joining the European Union and NATO."

The new government has said it is committed to privatizing about 1,850 state-owned companies by the end of the year. Implementing economic reform and privatization is vital to becoming a member of the European Union. "We are trying our best to become a new member by the end of 2006," Mr. Picula said.

However, the foreign minister said that his government´s immediate priorities are "improving the economic situation and fostering good relations with our neighbors."

Mr. Picula believes that promoting an aggressive free-trade agenda in the region will help foster economic growth and political stability. He said economic development and greater trade will create closer cooperation among the former republics of Yugoslavia.

He said his government also plans to forge economic links with the new reformist government in Belgrade, putting aside the bitter memories of the 1991-95 war in which nearly one-third of Croatia´s territory was occupied by rebel Serbs backed by the Yugoslav army. Croatia eventually recovered its lost territories.

"We are opening negotiations with Yugoslavia," Mr. Picula said. "We will host the Yugoslav foreign minister next month to begin negotiating a free-trade agreement."


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