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Southeastern European Defense Ministerial
Remarks as Delivered by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen, Hyatt Hotel, Thessaloniki, Greece, Monday, October 09, 2000

Thank you, Minister [of Defense, Greece; Akis] Tsohatzopoulos, for your welcoming remarks and wonderful hospitality. My thanks to each of my colleagues for their informative presentations.

In ancient times, this city was a crossroads of civilizations. In our times, it has been a path of peacemakers -- the forces who brought an end to the conflict in Kosovo. It is, therefore, a most appropriate place for us to gather as we discuss our progress toward building a more peaceful and prosperous region.

I have had the privilege of participating in SEDM [Southeastern European Defense Ministerial] almost since its beginning five years ago and have been gratified by its impressive progress since that time.

In March 1996, Defense Ministers from Albania, Italy, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey and the United States met in Tirana [Albania]. At the time, this was a region consumed by the violent unraveling of the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, the history leading up to that first ministerial had not been promising. For example, in the early 1990’s the situation in Bosnia was bleak, many said beyond hope, with daily pictures of ethnic cleansing in the countryside and slaughter in Sarajevo.

Today, through the combined efforts of our soldiers and diplomats Bosnia – though still facing major challenges -- is a much different place. More and more refugees are returning to their homes. Over the last two years, Bosnian Serbs, Muslims, and Croats have agreed to cut their armed forces by more than 25%. And two weeks ago a multi-ethnic Bosnian Olympic team marched into the stadium in Sydney under a common flag in a powerful symbol of reconciliation and hope.

In Kosovo, because of our united action last year, and the peacekeeping since, Serbian forces are out, the vast majority of refugees have returned, the region is largely stable, and there is guarded hope for the future. And today, Slobodan Milosevic, whose legacy is one of misery for millions, watches bitterly as his long grip on Serbia is finally breaking.

But, back in those difficult days of the mid-1990’s, the fact that Defense Ministers from this region sat around a common table at Tirana was itself historic. It marked the tentative beginnings of defense relationships and cooperative efforts to promote regional stability, and breach the barriers of national isolationism and mistrust.

At subsequent gatherings in Sofia [Bulgaria], Skopje [Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia], and Bucharest [Romania], we made even more substantial progress, including the establishment of the Southeastern European Multinational Peace Force, an Engineer Task Force, and the Crisis Information Network. In short, in little more than four years, our commitments at this ministerial level have produced a solid record of meaningful regional cooperation.

Indeed, SEDM activities advance the security of this region in three important ways: Expanding regional cooperation and confidence with the emergence of regional partnerships, hotlines, training, and personnel exchanges; promoting improved regional defense capabilities through collective efforts such as a command post exercise last year and the Seven Stars field exercise in Bulgaria last month; and building a bridge to Euro-Atlantic institutions, particularly NATO. As a result, the states of southeast Europe have taken great steps towards becoming providers, not just consumers, of security.

We now have the opportunity to build on these successful programs. Our priority must now be to assimilate and integrate all our initiatives and communication networks, and set achievable milestones and goals for the future.

First, we need to further develop regional capabilities. We should take realistic next steps for existing projects, and consider modest proposals for concrete new projects. Second, we clearly need to coordinate SEDM’s activities and initiatives, and our agreement to establish a SEDM Coordination Committee is designed to do so. Third, we should continue to strengthen the ties between SEDM’s initiatives and Euro-Atlantic institutions, especially NATO. Finally, we need to integrate related SEDM programs so they are not disconnected parts, but rather an effective whole.

Indeed, one of the most powerful lessons of the 90’s has been the strength we achieve through multi-lateralism. Capabilities that are beyond the means of any individual nation in this region can be achieved through less formal cooperative efforts built on existing structures. Assistant Secretary [of Defense for International Security Affairs, Franklin] Kramer will discuss this concept in more depth in a moment.

This will be my final SEDM as Secretary. We have traveled a great distance together, but the task before us remains critical to the future of Europe: to complete the transformation of the region into peaceful, open, and integrated democracies and market economies based on the rule of law. SEDM partners have begun the challenging task of transforming themselves into modern, western-oriented militaries under civilian control. Our defense establishments have also learned that old dividing lines must give way to multilateral cooperation, which is the key to a stable, democratic and prosperous future.

As we depart this city that is so bound to the great leaders of the past, named for the sister of the Alexander, the birthplace of Ataturk, we should take strength from that lineage and work together, leading this region toward a future that rises above its past. Thank you very much.