[This media activity follows an Honor Cordon welcoming Minister of Defense Lazar Kitanoski of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to the Pentagon]
Secretary Cohen: Good morning. I am pleased to welcome Minister Kitanoski to the Pentagon. We met my last during my visit to Skopje in December and I hope to return to Skopje in September for the meeting of the Southeastern European Defense Ministerial.
At our meeting today, we discussed the situation in Kosovo and America's commitment to maintaining stability in the Balkans. As part of that commitment, the United States supports a continued international military presence in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia after the current U.N. mission ends on August 31st. We currently have approximately 350 American troops in Macedonia, and the United States and our international community are discussing ways in which -- and what form that future mission could take. The key to maintain stability in the region is now the successive efforts to calm tensions in Kosovo. And the U.N. Security Counsel has imposed an arms embargo against Serbia in response to its repressive rule in Kosovo. And other actions will follow if Serbia continues to favor violence over reason. Initiatives started by the Southeastern European Defense Ministerial show that countries in the region can work together. A multi-national Balkans peacekeeping battalion is beginning to take shape. There has also been a civil - military planning conference and these promising building blocks for stability.
Now, Mr. Minister, perhaps you could make a comment.
Minister Kitanoski: Technically speaking, this is a regular consultation between the two ministers. And first and foremost, we speak about the bilateral relations between the two governments. And primarily the way in which the American forces are giving their support to the stability of Macedonia, the stability of the region and, specifically, because of the neighborhood. And also about the support that the American government is giving for the equipment of the Macedonian army.
And we are certainly very concerned about the situation in Kosovo and believe that the only solution is the one that has a political option. And we have to do our best to prevent the developments in Kosovo, the way it has been going. Because if this is not prevented, it could cause a domino effect along the entire Balkans. And I am very pleased to be able to say that the American presence will be secured in the area after August 31st in a manner that is discussed additionally.
We also spoke about the possibilities Macedonia provides for the cooperation, the member states of NATO. In other words, our relations are excellent. We have very good, open discussion on very friendly terms and I believe that this visit is extremely useful.
Secretary Cohen: Thank you.
Q: Mr. Secretary, can you tell us if any consideration or discussion was given to increasing the number of U.S. troops in Macedonia?
A: (Cohen): We had a general discussion on the need to extend UNPREDEP for the immediate future, but did not get into any detail about what should be the follow on force, what composition and at what levels. But we did discuss the need to extend UNPREDEP beyond August.
Q: Which means it will remain the same number?
A: (Cohen): Yes. That, of course, is always subject to change depending upon the composition that may be required by other countries as well. But it's my anticipation that we would keep the same level during the extension.
Q: Did you discuss whether the follow on force would be necessarily a continuation of the U.N. or perhaps NATO or is it just too early to tell?
A: (Cohen): Too early to tell. I think it's too early to reach a judgment at this point, but we think an extension of UNPREDEP for the short term, at least, is the appropriate course of action.
Are there representatives from Macedonia here who would like ask questions? ...of your Minister?
Q: Actually, my question is directed to you. We expect you very soon in Macedonia. Do you want to send a message before that to the Macedonian people there right now?
A: (Cohen): I think the message has been delivered here this morning that Macedonia is an important country to the United States. We have a presence there. We are finding ways in which we can help Macedonia secure its needs to modernize its military, to upgrade its capability and to provide for its own security in the future. And so we intend to continue to play an important role in that effort.
Q: Secretary Cohen, is the Pentagon's don't ask, don't tell policy working considering that the number of expulsions for homosexuality continue to rise every year?
A: (Cohen): Overall, the report that has been filed would indicate that the policy is working. There are some indications that there has been an increase as far some of the people who have declared themselves to be homosexual and have opted getting out of the military. But in terms of the policy itself, overall, I think it's working. We intend to continue to emphasize the fact that this policy should not be abused, that it should be no attempt to hunt or seek out those who may be homosexual and that we intend to strictly enforce the don't ask, don't tell policy.
Would someone like to address a question to the Minister while he is here?
Q: Mr. Minister, if the situation, the tensions in Kosovo continue to grow, are you concerned, sir, that the ethnic Albanians in your country might take up arms and perhaps cross the border and join that conflict?
A: (Kitanoski): The situation in Macedonia is rather stable. So far, we have not had any activities of that nature. In Macedonia, there were public meetings in support of the Albanians in Kosovo. But I believe the problems in Kosovo have to be treated separately from the question of the political situation in Macedonia. Just to remind you, in the Republic of Macedonia, the Albanians have their representatives in the parliament. They're a member of the coalition government. And we're trying to finds ways everywhere where there was under- representation, we have more Albanians in the Macedonian government structures. For example, in the army, we have a general in the joint chiefs of staff who is Albanian by nationality. In other words, the situation in Macedonia is quite distant from the situation in Kosovo. However, we remained concerned about the situation in Kosovo. And we do not -- it is not in our interest if Macedonia is involved in any way in the problem of Kosovo at present.
Press: Thank you, Minister. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.