May 8, 2009 / 4:27 PM / 10 years ago

Scheffer says NATO's doors open to Balkan hopefuls

TIRANA (Reuters) - NATO’s secretary-general said on Friday that the alliance’s door would be open to nations from the Balkans, whose 1990s wars changed NATO into a peacekeeper, provided they keep reforming and cooperating.

Addressing a meeting of the Adriatic Five charter of new NATO members Croatia and Albania as well as hopefuls Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said NATO and EU membership would help southeast Europe move forward.

Inviting Bosnia and Montenegro last year into the Adriatic Charter Cooperation “was a further demonstration that the logic of working together has become firmly ingrained in this region,” Scheffer said.

“Cooperation has replaced confrontation, and this has opened up exciting new opportunities for all of southeast Europe,” he told the five Balkan states’ foreign ministers in Tirana.

“I have long been convinced that Euro-Atlantic integration offers the only feasible way for southeast Europe to move forward.”

Hailing Croatia and Albania’s entry into NATO early in April, Scheffer said it was also a success for the whole region and should serve as an example of what could be achieved.

Macedonia failed to be admitted as a NATO member because of 18-year-old objections from Greece over its name, the same as Greece’s northernmost province, also the birthplace of ancient Greek hero Alexander the Great.

“We are fully aware that not all countries here in this region have yet been able to realise that ambition. But the logic of integration through NATO enlargement remains as valid as ever,” he added.

“That is why NATO’s door will remain open. It is why countries that aspire to NATO membership must maintain, and indeed intensify, their reform efforts,” he added.

NATO intervened first in Bosnia and Herzegovina and later in Kosovo to stop armed conflicts that ravaged the Balkans for almost a decade as former Yugoslavia disintegrated.

Scheffer said that, in many respects, NATO’s transformation after the end of the Cold War originated in southeast Europe, a euphemistic term for the Balkans.

“It was Yugoslavia’s collapse that forced NATO to assume a role it had never before contemplated — that of crisis manager and peacekeeper,” Scheffer said.

“With the resolution of that crisis, and the establishment of peace throughout this region, NATO’s commitment has not lessened, and should not.”

NATO troops are still stationed in Bosnia and Kosovo to maintain a fragile peace between the various communities there. Balkan countries are in various stages of their NATO and EU membership, with Croatia now the closest to joining the EU.

Reporting by Benet Koleka, editing by Adam Tanner

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