- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

Greece’s involvement in the Balkans is not new. Even before the foundation of the modern Greek state, the idea of a Balkan cooperation existed. The idea of a Balkan Federation, which Greece would lead, was conceived, toward the end of the 18th century, by Rigas Velestinlis, a man inspired by the ideals of freedom and democracy. Rigas visualized a Balkan region where people could move freely from country to country, where trade would be conducted without barriers, a region of prosperity for its peoples.

Now, more than 200 years after its conception, this idea, modified to some extent, is to become a reality. The Balkans are now at the doorstep of the European Union. Greece gave a historic boost to the Western Balkans’ legitimate European aspirations at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, during its EU presidency.

Greece devised a long-term policy based on three solid pillars: (a) integration of the countries of the region into the EU and NATO, (b) economic development and investment and (c) regional cooperation.

The integration of Greece’s neighborhood into the European and Euro-Atlantic institutions, upon fulfillment of specific criteria and conditions, has become our policy’s fundamental strategic goal. In January 2007, Bulgaria and Romania will be the first Balkan countries to join the EU. Greece was the first among its EU partners, in the mid-‘90s, to advocate Bulgaria’s and Romania’s accession. European integration and the prospect of EU membership is the strongest single soft power mechanism for encouraging reforms, consolidating democracy, establishing the rule of law, strengthening institutions and eventually bringing economic prosperity.

Greece has become a leading investor in the Balkans, with investments of more than $10 billion, and the generation of 200,000 new jobs. The volume of trade between Greece and its Balkan neighbors is more than $4 billion. In addition, Greece launched in 2002 a five-year development aid initiative called the Hellenic Plan for the Economic Reconstruction of the Balkans, which amounts to a $670 million program, and aims at promoting the economic development of Greece’s neighboring Balkan countries.

Many problems that the Balkans face are common to the countries of the region. It is therefore natural to deal with them in common. Regional cooperation is essential for ethnic reconciliation, to increase regional ownership and allow the Balkan counties to address, in a coordinated manner, issues of mutual concern. Greece was the driving force in revival of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP) in the 1990s. It has gradually evolved into the only genuine scheme of cooperation in the Balkans, acting at the same time as the region’s authentic voice.

Now, in 2006, we are about to witness the closing of another chapter in the history of the Balkans, begun by the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Montenegro’s peaceful secession from its state union with Serbia and the settlement of Kosovo’s status will be the epilogue of this chapter.

On Kosovo, especially, Greece, with strategic interests at stake, has contributed concrete ideas both within the EU and within the framework of the Greek-U.S. strategic partnership. We need a win/win or at least a win/no lose solution, which will have the support or at least consent of both Belgrade and Pristina.

Greece opposes partition of Kosovo. We cannot afford to have a Kosovo divided exclusively along ethnic lines, or to have Kosovo annexed by or united with any neighboring country or part of a country. We cannot have our region integrated into the European Union while, at the same time, we promote a solution that perpetuates division. We want to see a solution for a multi-ethnic and multicultural Kosovo based on European standards and values.

A new chapter will soon open; a chapter which will be remembered by generations to come as an era of stability, prosperity and cooperation; an era when respect for the different is the rule and not the exception; an era when the Balkans are embraced by the European family, where they have always belonged.

Alexandros P. Mallias is ambassador of Greece to the United States.

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