NEWS

A stronger Balkan role

The Greek government is to decide in the next few days on increasing its military presence in the Balkans as Athens wants to strengthen its role in the region during this time of international turmoil. An opportunity for this is expected to arise with the possible departure of US troops now serving in Bosnia and Kosovo in order to move them to the theater of operations against international terrorism in Central Asia. Athens is interested not only in maintaining stability in the region, which is crucial in light of the international crisis, but a stronger presence will also upgrade Greece’s role in the Balkans. This is likely to lead to a tug-of-war with other countries with the same aim, notably Italy. Prime Minister Costas Simitis met yesterday with President Costis Stephanopoulos and briefed him on international developments and their effect on Greece. There is always uncertainty around international developments and this uncertainty affects all sectors, it affects the economic sector as well, Simitis said. We need to be calm, he added. The consequences for Greece are controllable. Greece is making an effort to limit the possible dangers that may arise. The Greek government saw NATO’s recent decision in which the transfer of US troops from the Balkans to Central Asia was raised as an opportunity for Greece to play a role in contributing toward stability. The leadership of the ministries of foreign affairs and defense saw this as a positive possibility, judging that it was imperative that Greece strengthen its position and work toward achieving diplomatic, economic and political gains. Prime Minister Costas Simitis has already been presented with proposals to send up to 3,000 troops to Bosnia and Kosovo and another 1,000 police officers, sources said. No decision has been taken yet and Simitis is said to be wary with regard to public opinion on the matter. The numbers proposed would constitute a great increase from Greece’s current presence in the Balkans. Greece has 1,676 soldiers in Kosovo and a small transportation unit in Bosnia. The United States has some 9,000 troops in the Balkans, 5,300 of whom are in Kosovo and the rest in Bosnia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Washington has not yet raised the issue in NATO and any talks so far have been informal and exploratory. According to sources, US Ambassador Thomas Miller touched on the matter in contacts with members of the government. Similar contacts have also been made with Canadian, German and Italian officials, while Turkey has turned its attention mainly toward sending forces to Central Asia. Greece is also concentrating on averting any terrorist threat within the country. We must be ready because all the European countries have the same possibility of being hit, a top government official said yesterday. Greece’s gross domestic product will grow at 4.5 percent in 2002 despite adverse international conditions, National Economy Minister Yiannos Papantoniou said. Papantoniou attended a meeting of EU finance ministers, who agreed that growth within the union would average 1.5 percent in 2002 and would accelerate only toward the end of that year.