Plan for a Balkan Park

THESSALONIKI – The waters of the Prespes and Ochrid lakes, among the most beautiful wetlands in Europe, have been connected underground for millions of years, although above ground the lakes have been divided according to geopolitical expedience. As the three lakes (Little Prespa, split between Greece and Albania, Greater Prespa split between these two countries and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Ochrid in the latter country and Albania) form a unified whole, if properly developed for tourism, they could give the entire border region a much-needed boost. All three countries recently agreed to set up a Balkan Park in order to jointly protect the area. According to the plans, the aim of the tripartite venture is not only to conserve the Prespes catchment area but to develop tourism in the region in conjunction with the resort on Lake Ochrid. A road linking Prespes with Pogradec on Lake Ochrid to connect all three sides of the Balkan Park, the development of infrastructure on the lake shores in FYROM and Albania to a level similar to that on the Greek side, and cooperation in protecting the lakes are some of the aspects of the plan. The decision was taken by the three countries’ prime ministers (Costas Simitis of Greece, Pandeli Majko of Albania and Ljubco Georgievski of FYROM) at Prespes in 2000. A joint secretariat has been set up based in Florina and already 15 million dollars have been obtained from a UN program on development aid to support the Albanian and FYROM side, as Greece has secured economic support from European Union programs. «What will really help us move ahead is the opening of border crossings,» Prespes Mayor Lazaros Nalpantidis told Kathimerini, «to facilitate travel between the three countries.» Nalpantidis said, however, that initial plans to open two basic border crossings, one on the Albanian border at Vrondero and the second at Neon with FYROM, for small vehicles, were not so simple because of the scars still left over from the time of the civil war in Greece that followed World War II. Setting up a border crossing with FYROM at the same pass used by Markos Vafeiadis, head of Greece’s communists that were fighting the nationalist forces at the time, to move in and out of the area from Yugoslavia, has revived memories of tragic events among many of the area’s older residents. Combined with other issues that still shadow relations between FYROM and Greece, this has made such an undertaking somewhat difficult. Yet many people, including Prespes’s mayor, are more optimistic and believe that obstacles will be overcome. The Balkan Park will become reality, simply because it is the only way to save the area’s rich flora and fauna (264 bird species and 1,500 plant species in Prespes alone), develop low-intervention tourism and create good neighborly relations.

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