Italy: Briefing by the Minister for Foreign Affairsto the Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee on the recent developments in the Balkans and in the Middle East

from Government of Italy
Published on 04 Apr 2001
Rome, April 4, 2001

Mr. Speaker,

Right Honourable Senators,

The invitation addressed to me by the Foreign Affairs Committee to hold this briefing with the two Chambers dissolved confirms Parliament's focus on Italy's international work and particularly on the importance of the "Balkan issue", which has now entered a new phase, with the outbreak of violence in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

In addition to this, other important developments have taken place in the area, including the arrest of Milosevic, which has turned the spotlight back onto Belgrade and opened up a new page in the political evolution of the country. The execution of the arrest warrant has confirmed the reformist line of the new Yugoslav leaders. We appreciate the role played in the event by President Kostunica who, in agreement with Prime Minister Djindjic, conducted the operation without incident.

These developments in Belgrade undoubtedly took place at a difficult time on the level of the integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and in a troublesome economic and social context. It is necessary, therefore, that in facing this test of its resolve, the Yugoslav leadership is assured of our political, economic and financial support.

The arrest of Milosevic was ordered on the basis of charges in connection to crimes for which he must answer first of all to his country. This is an important step, and one, which will have to follow its institutional course and be completed, according to the expectations of the international community, by a co-operative approach, on the part of Belgrade, with the International Criminal Court.

Right Honourable Senators,

My speech today, two weeks after the one given here by Under-Secretary Ranieri, aims to place the events in Macedonia in a regional perspective which, as has been recalled several times in this chamber, must necessarily be taken into account when it comes to the Balkans. Mr Migone himself stressed in his statement two weeks ago that Italy, at the level both of government and parliament, has always maintained a foresightful position on the Balkan situation, the wisdom of which has been confirmed by subsequent events.

The upheaval still affecting the countries emerged from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and which recently led to the Macedonian crisis, are such that the need must be recalled for the international community to continue its action to support the stabilisation, reconstruction and growth of the region. The crisis in Macedonia; the tensions in the Presevo valley, in the south of Serbia; the reform path embarked upon in Belgrade; the upcoming legislative elections in Montenegro and the redefinition of its relations with Serbia in the framework of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; the process of implementation of resolution 1244 on Kosovo; and lastly, the situation in Bosnia Herzegovina: these are the main issues and problems we are faced with today.

It is on the current situation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - one of the most critical stages for that country since the time of its birth in 1991 - that our attention is focused today, the risks being clear that the situation entails for the stability and the security of the FYROM and the whole area. This evening, in fact, I am to meet with the Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim, who is currently on his way to Rome.

As is known, the crisis broke out on February 10 with an bomb attack in Tearce, and then spread to Tetovo, a city with a majority proportion of ethnic Albanians, situated at around 40 kilometres from the capital. There, during a peaceful demonstration by Albanians, Macedonian police units were attacked by paramilitary groups camped out in the hillside area surrounding the nearby border with Kosovo.

The problem also stems from the connections and ties that exist among the different groups of ethnic Albanian extremists - which include veteran KLA military-operating between Kosovo, Macedonia and southern Serbia. We also face the possibility that the operations of the armed Albanian groups may extend to Macedonian territory and towards the more densely inhabited zones of mixed ethnic composition. In particular, it will be necessary to thoroughly check the supplies of weapons and financial support to the guerrillas and their sources.

Over recent days, the Macedonian military response has allowed some of the villages and hills overlooking the city of Tetovo to be liberated, and some groups of extremist armed Albanian groups to be driven back towards the border zone and into Kosovar territory. The operation provided a demonstration of a self-defence capacity that has reassured Macedonian public opinion: this is an important effect, bearing in mind the risks of new outbreaks of nationalism in the region. This military action certainly did not come as an easy option. Now it remains to assess whether or not it has been - as all we hope - conclusive or if, instead, it was but a phase in the conflict.

At the political level, the greatest risk was obviously that the military action turn into an indiscriminate campaign involving ethnic Albanian civilians, which would have led to the population being split ethnically and every institutional dialogue being thwarted. The military action was, therefore, conducted correctly, aimed at reducing damage for the civilian population to a minimum and thus making it possible to respect the agreement with the Party of Albanians that has remained in the governing coalition in Skopje.

It is clear, therefore, that besides pursuing its military action, the Macedonian government will have to address the political problem of inter-ethnic relations, the corner stone of a lasting solution to the crisis. Indeed, this is a crisis that has developed within a complex social context. Macedonia is endeavouring to find a form of co-existence that is satisfactory to the two main components, Slavs and Albanians. The latter is making demands on various levels: on the constitutional level, they are calling for total equality between the two ethnic groups, total bilingualism and a broader administrative decentralisation, particularly in the university field.

It will then be necessary to carry out an updated census of the population: according to the 1994 census, ethnic Albanians account for 23 percent of the population, while the Albanians claim they now comprise about a third of the entire Macedonian population.

In addressing the situation, the international community has shown a cohesion for which we must take comfort. I am referring in particular to the strong accord between the European Union and NATO, to the collaboration within the Contact Group, whose Foreign Ministers will meet next Wednesday in Paris, and to the full agreement with the United States. This is surely one of the most positive secondary aspects that the crisis has highlighted. What is more, reactions in neighbouring countries have been maintained at a level of great responsibility. We are also stimulating OSCE action to promote confidence-building measures and measures to strengthen the institutions, so as to create a climate conducive to a consensus on how to solve the problem, in confirmation of the points underlined by Giuliano Andreotti within the Commission.

The European Union, for its part, has adopted a constructive approach since the outset. At the European Council in Stockholm, in which President Trajkovski took part, the Macedonian crisis was at the centre of the discussions. In reaffirming the inviolability of internationally recognised borders and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the FYROM as a unitary multi-ethnic State, and while condemning the action of the armed extremists, the European Union invited the Macedonian government to persevere in its responsible line and to adopt the necessary internal measures to foster inter-ethnic dialogue.

The EU High Representative Javier Solana went to Skopje on April 2, with Commissioner Chris Patten, where they called for a Committee to be set up including representatives of the majority and opposition parties to address the matters of internal stability, inter-communal relations and the necessary reforms. This is in order to foster adjustment to European standards, in view, among other things, of the signing, on April 9, of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement between Macedonia and the European Union. The government in Skopje is considering meeting those requests.

NATO, for its part, has also given a strong signal of commitment and solidarity towards the Macedonian government. On the ground, the KFOR has stepped up border control. Lord Robertson and the Alliance's military hierarchies have particularly appreciated the deployment of an Italian Folgore contingent, that has been re-positioned from the Pec area to the border with the FYROM.

NATO support to Macedonia will not, however, go beyond the existing juridical-military framework. It has been reiterated to the Macedonian government that the Atlantic Alliance does not envisage enlarging the mandate previously conferred upon it by the United Nations, to include the FYROM on top of Kosovo.

On 21 March, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution put forward upon a British initiative, and strongly supported by us, condemning the armed action of the Albanian extremists and of full support to the Macedonian and Yugoslav governments. On our request, reference was inserted in the resolution to the constructive role played by Albania.

Of significance also is the contribution of the Contact Group, which includes Russia. The Contact Group has confirmed the need, on the one hand, to isolate extremism and, on the other, to meet the legitimate demands of the country's ethnic Albanian community.

From this point of view, the Macedonian Parliament has a central role to play. We hope, therefore, that all the political parties will actively participate in its work. On this subject, our expectation, which we have already expressed and that I will not miss the opportunity of underlining once more to Foreign Minister Kerim this evening, is that greater integration of the ethnic Albanian minority can be quickly promoted along the lines advocated by the European Union.

The Italian government, moreover, intends to reiterate to the ethnic Albanian politicians of Kosovo the need to sever every tie, even indirect ties, with the extremist groups that operate in the north of Macedonia. We are developing similar moderator action with Tirana.

On the other hand, as I have quite rightly underlined here, political stabilisation cannot disregard economic and social growth. I must point out to this respect how necessary it is to have tools of action such as the law on the reconstruction of the Balkans, approved by Parliament at the beginning of March.

I would now like to draw your attention briefly to a review of the other critical spots of the area.

As far as Kosovo is concerned, the Italian line continues to be that of full support to the action of the UNMIK and the KFOR in the framework of resolution 1244, to avert, among other things, the risk of the province turning into a harbour for extremism and international terrorism. We intend to foster Serbia's participation in the general election which - according to resolution 1244 - will designate the representatives of the future provisional organs of self-government.

In Montenegro, pending the results of the legislative elections of April 22, we feel that an open dialogue is necessary among the members of the Federation to define mutually satisfactory constitutional arrangements, within the federal framework and to avert any possibly of further disruption in the area.

We have continuously sent clear messages to President Djukanovic for Montenegro to refrain from unilateral action, to adopt a more constructive attitude with Belgrade and to celebrate the elections in a democratic context, including with regard to media access.

Lastly, concerning Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the face of separatist pressure from some Croatian-Bosnian forces, I would like to reaffirm the position of the Italian government, based on the respect and on the complete implementation of the Dayton accords and on the condemnation of extremist positions that risk bringing about a new rift in the country.

I would like to move on now to a brief update on the latest developments in the situation in the Middle East.

The Sharon government has reacted to the latest terrorist attacks with a hard-line military response. The raids by Israeli helicopters and armoured tanks against Palestinian targets are a sign of the exasperation felt in Jerusalem, but they do not represent a declaration of war.

It now remains to see how the situation on the ground evolves over the next few days. The Israeli accusations levelled at Arafat on his terrorist responsibilities do not afford much hope. The Israeli police and security forces, on the other hand, are meeting with increasing difficulties in containing the most radical fringes of the settlers' movement.

The Palestinian Authority, for its part, does not appear able to control the most radical Islamic groups and to curb the wave of terrorism. The risks of a spiral of violence, provoked by groups that act in total autonomy, are therefore very high.

Today, the main objective for everybody, for Europe as well as for Washington and Moscow, is to make sure that the parties get back to the negotiating table and resume talks again with determination to find a solution to the conflict.

We must start from the observation that the previous negotiation efforts, launched by the Barak government and concluded in Taba on the eve of the Israeli elections, have not produced the results hoped for. It seems, as a consequence, that the negotiations cannot begin again from where the agreements signed in Sharm el Sheikh last October left off. So as things stand, it is urgent for a series of confidence-building measures to be put in place in order to stop the violence.

The Israeli settlements in the occupied Territories have till now been the factor that has brought all the negotiations to a standstill. In order to go on with the talks, the Sharon government will have to ensure that no new settlements are created or any existing ones extended. Confidence-building measures include access to hospitals for the Palestinian population, the easing of the economic blockade of the occupied Territories and the resumption of fiscal transfers to the Palestinian Authority.

At international level, the new American administration has assumed a position of relative disengagement vis-à-vis the peace process. The United States veto of the Security Council resolution promoted by the Arab States on dispatching observers to Palestine and Washington's appeal to Arafat to stop the violence are certainly a sign of support to Israel, but they also indicate a lower level of commitment than that of the Clinton administration.

Moscow, for its part, deems that the driving impetus of Oslo has died out and that it is therefore necessary to draw not only the parties and the co-sponsors (United States and Russia) into a new negotiation, but also the European Union and the "Key Arab countries". This would thus lead to the resumption of a dialogue of substance with Syria and Lebanon and, from a wider viewpoint, greater involvement of Iran too.

On the level of European initiative, in Stockholm on 23 and March 24 the Union took steps to avoid economic and institutional collapse in the Palestinian Territories. To the same end, it has pressingly urged Israel to open up the territories and to transfer the tax revenue it owes to the authority. Given the deterioration of the Palestinian economy, the European Union has also earmarked 60 million Euros of aid to the budget of the Palestinian National Authority, tying it to a rigorous financial policy under the control of the International Monetary Fund.

The European Union has also been working to promote a conference of donor countries, on April 11 in Stockholm, with the objective of backing the economic recovery of the Territories. The Union must however maintain strict conditions attached to community aid, so as to avoid corruption and bad management jeopardising its effectiveness.

Immediately after the European Council in Stockholm, the High Representative Javier Solana made another trip to the region and upon his return, he provided a very worrying picture, which confirmed our evaluations. Mr. Solana also noted with apprehension the harshness of the economic blockade imposed on the Palestinian Territories, the level of violence, the gravity of the problem of the settlements, and the financial difficulties of the Palestinian Authority.

In this context, our analysis is in line with that of the European Union: it will not be possible to put an end to the violence without a clear, univocal political perspective of pacification of the area. With regard to this objective, Italy, in the European framework, does not intend to save any energy.