Adriatic states talk stability in Serbia's absence

ANCONA, May 20, 2000 -- (Reuters) Italy and its Adriatic Sea neighbors debated ways to boost cooperation and development on Friday, but an absent Serbia cast shadows on future stability.

Belgrade was not invited to the two-day conference in the Italian port of Ancona but its increasingly reluctant partner in the Yugoslav federation, Montenegro, attended as an observer.

"Unfortunately, Serbia is not here because a despotic and authoritarian regime is in command in Belgrade," Italian Junior Foreign Minister Umberto Ranieri told reporters.

"We hope Serbia will able to take up its seat at the international table as soon as possible - we reaffirm that we are ready to welcome a democratic Serbia," he said.

Belgrade this week shut down the influential opposition television station Studio B, a move Ranieri described as possibly "calculated" in the run-up to Serbia's local elections.

The seizure, the harshest crackdown on non-government media to date by President Slobodan Milosevic's government, prompted mass street protests and subsequent clashes with police.

Asked whether Montenegro had voiced fears that the tension in Serbia would spread, Ranieri said: "I think their position is one of prudence and vigilance. And of course, concern. How could it be otherwise?"


Ranieri said he hoped the Ancona talks - aimed at boosting ties between Adriatic neighbors in a bid to fight organized crime, illegal immigration and foster development - would show "strong opposition to the repression in Belgrade and support for the young people and the opposition who are bravely fighting the regime".

He acknowledged Serbia was an obstacle to the conference's aim "to build the conditions for a more effective cooperation between Adriatic rim countries".

"If Serbia does not find the path of stable democracy, everything becomes harder," he said.

Much of Friday's session was devoted to working groups on maritime transport, tourism, the environment, fighting organized crime, the private sector and cooperation between universities.

Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini met his counterparts from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece and Slovenia to sign bilateral and trilateral accords covering mainly Adriatic Sea traffic and investment protection in Bosnia.

Ranieri sought to play down suggestions of a rift with Slovenia over its progress to join the European Union after President Milan Kucan appeared to suggest in a speech to the European Parliament that Italy was putting obstacles in its way.

Kucan delivered the speech in Slovenian without the remarks in question, but they appeared in a translated text version.

Ranieri said the issue had been clarified by Slovenia, that Italy accepted it was an "error in translation" and that desire for cooperation between the two nations remained strong.

Saturday's session will be extended to include European Commission President Romano Prodi, the bloc's foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, the coordinator of Western aid to the Balkans, Bodo Hombach and multilateral organizations.

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