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Secretary Cohen Joint Press Conference with Defense Ministers from SEDM

Presenter: Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
October 09, 2000

(Joint press conference with defense ministers attending the Southeastern European Defense Ministerial [SEDM], Thessaloniki, Greece.)

Secretary Cohen: Minister Tsohatzopoulos, let me thank you once again for being such a very generous and gracious host for this fifth meeting of the Southeast European Defense Ministerial. During the past day, we have had an opportunity to discuss what a difference a day makes, and in this case, a year, and I will say most specifically, four years. During the past four years this organization has made tremendous progress and contributed enormously to stability and security throughout the region. SEDM has been an enormous success, as I mentioned, in creating a multi-national force, police force, and I should point out that this force, protective force, recently completed a successful exercise in Bulgaria, it should be ready for deployment in the coming months, next year, and will make, I believe, a substantial contribution to the security of the region.

Again, the peace force is something this institution can be rightly proud of. I also took the occasion to form out in our private deliberations that, with the exception of our host, Minister Tsohatzopoulos and myself, virtually all of the personalities have changed during the past four years from the countries who are represented here, both at the military level and also at the political and ministerial level. But it does point out the importance not only of people but of process. This has been a very successful and important process of promoting peace through these mutli-lateral, multi-national institutions.

There are several other important factors. Number one is the presence of Croatia. The fact that Croatia is now a member of the SEDM says many things about change, and rapid change in our lives. But it sends the signal that Croatia is prepared to become fully integrated into the multi-national institutions, and to bear responsibility and support for promoting peace and stability throughout the region. This is a very welcome turn of events and we congratulate the new minister for joining us at this important meeting.

And the third point I want to make is that this meeting is important because it comes within days of the triumph of the democratic forces in Yugoslavia, and the departure from power of Mr. Milosevic. All of the members here have indicated that we want to work as actively as we can to help rebuild that country which has been put through so much torment and turmoil and damage by Mr. Milosevic during the past decade, and that we are looking for ways in which we can cooperate and to help the people rebuild their lives and become fully integrated into the international community.

So, for the first time in five years, we see the prospect of the entire region being now known for its peace and stability and prosperity, and not for its problems. And I want to take this occasion to congratulate and thank again our hosts, but all of the members of the SEDM for their enormous contribution and willingness to make the kind of dedicated sacrifice to not only creating this institution, but making it as successful as it's been.

This is, as Minister Tsohatzopoulos indicated, my last appearance as the Secretary of Defense of the United States. It is not my last appearance or involvement in international affairs, particularly here in Europe, in Southeast Europe. I intend to return and to become active and involved in affairs that will continue to promote the goals that we all share - democratic goals of promoting human values, respect for our civilian authorities, and the promotion of those democratic ideals throughout Europe.

Q: Can Yugoslavia become a member of a body such as this when there are indicted war criminals running around Serbia? And it's not just Slobodan Milosevic...

Cohen: I think it's clear that the first order of business for President Kostunica is to establish order, stability, to solidify the democratic reforms that need to take place, and he has been given that opportunity. We think that he must move quickly to seize that opportunity. Secondarily, he will then have to focus then on the war crimes issue because this is something that will not fade away with time. Part of being a democracy and promoting democratic ideals, is to hold people accountable. The international community has indicated quite strongly that those accused of war crimes must be held accountable. We expect that that would take place in the future, but as we have seen with what has happened with Croatia things can change quite rapidly in today's world and that anything is possible if the correct steps are taken in the future.

Q: This question is about KFOR. Following recent developments in Belgrade, are you thinking of immediately reducing its force?

Cohen: NATO has been responsible in working with its partners to maintain stability in Kosovo. While we are encouraged by what has taken place in Yugoslavia, we feel that it is prudent to maintain the current level of force, as we do in Bosnia. We review it periodically, depending on the nature of the security environment, but we foresee maintaining the KFOR force as it is for the foreseeable future and do not anticipate any significant changes until such time as NATO is satisfied, acting collectively, that the security environment would warrant any changes.

Q: In his last statements, Mr. Kostunica said that regarding Kosovo, Yugoslavia should be prevailing and its presence should be strengthened. What is your opinion?

Cohen: Well, our position is that Kosovo should take advantage and resume the type of autonomy that it had prior to Milosevic changing that autonomous relationship it had back in the early 90s. We support greater autonomy for Kosovo, we do not support independence for Kosovo, but we believe that the Kosovars have an opportunity to gain much greater control over their lives. We believe they should pursue not independence, but autonomy.