YU neighbors meet to discuss hopes, fears

SOFIA, Jan 21, 2000 -- (Reuters) Leaders of seven countries bordering Yugoslavia meet on Friday with senior European Union and NATO officials to discuss economic and security concerns in the continent's unstable Balkan region.

The informal summit in the Bulgarian spa resort of Hisarya is aimed at highlighting the international isolation of the hard-line regime in Belgrade and efforts to find regional identity in an area torn by ethnic and political strife for centuries.

"The goal of the meeting is to send an authentic regional message to the international community, to Yugoslavia and to Kosovo Albanians," Mihail Mihailov, chief of the Bulgarian government press service, said on Thursday.

"We should show that we are capable of generating stability. We are not only a problem but also a solution," he said.

The meeting brings together the premiers of Bulgaria, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Hungary, Croatia and Bosnia with the EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Deputy Secretary-General Sergio Balanzino.

All the participating countries have problems of their own, but they also share a number of concerns topped by Yugoslavia and its veteran leader Slobodan Milosevic, blamed for starting three wars in the region in the past decade.

These sent hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring states, and many of them have yet to return.

Countries seeking economic, political aid from west

All participating states have suffered economic losses due to last year's war over Serbia's southern Kosovo province, and are seeking economic and political aid from the West as they try to integrate into Europe's mainstream.

The leaders are likely to seek answers from NATO and the EU on whether a Balkan Stability Pact launched by the major powers in a blaze of publicity last year is to become more than just good intentions. So far little has been done to fill it with economic substance.

Another issue, particularly important for Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, is restoring navigation on the Danube, disrupted by the wreckage of bridges destroyed during last year's NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia.

So far, the West has ruled out aid in clearing the Danube as long as Milosevic remains in power.

For the countries south of Yugoslavia, especially Albania and Macedonia, with its large ethnic Albanian minority, another concern is Kosovo, where the international community has struggled to restore calm and install democracy.

Solana, who headed NATO during the air war against Yugoslavia, is due to visit Kosovo on Friday and is likely to brief the meeting on his findings.

The participants are also likely to discuss the possible danger of a standoff between Milosevic and pro-Western Montenegro, Serbia's sister republic in what remains of Yugoslavia.

Wolfgang Petritsch, the West's peace envoy in Bosnia, said this week that civil war in Montenegro was possible if the tiny republic tried to break away from Belgrade.

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]