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Italy in the Balkans

To mark the visit of Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi to NATO, Ambassador Amedeo de Franchis examines Italys policy towards the Balkans.

Italy is one of the founding members of the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union. In the decisive difficult, but exciting years between 1950 and 1955, there was an intense debate in Italy at all levels, from parliament to grass roots society, on the countrys international future. This debate resulted in Italys membership of the two entities, which have so profoundly shaped and transformed the events of the subsequent decades and the face of the Old Continent: the Atlantic Alliance and what at that time was called the European Community. These two organisations became and have remained the signposts of Italys foreign policy: its Atlantic commitment and its European vocation.

State visit: Lord Robertson (left), Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Ambassador Amedeo de Franchis (right) at NATO. (NATO photo - 10Kb)

It is in this spirit and with the strong support of Italian public opinion and Italian political forces, that Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi came to address the North Atlantic Council on 5 May. Seeing the Atlantic Alliance of the year 2000 as a bridge between past and future, he paid tribute to it for having preserved for 50 years the fundamental, values of freedom and democracy, and expressed Italys appreciation for the effective way in which the Atlantic Alliance has adapted and transformed itself, consolidating the cohesion among its members.

The new NATO as it is often called today that emerged following the Washington Summit, is able and ready to assume a central role in the security of the Euro-Atlantic area, in addition to its longstanding and still valid functions of collective defence. The Balkans provide clear testimony to NATOs vocation of maintaining security on the continent, of developing a vision that is increasingly dynamic and of broadening and maintaining peace, in the Balkan region. NATO, which had never before deployed a single soldier there, has intervened militarily first in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and then in Kosovo, and now has more than 60 000 troops deployed in the region. The Balkans are therefore central to the Atlantic Alliance and to its vision for the future. And Italy, in turn, plays a central role in the Balkans and in the strategy being developed by NATO for that region, which demonstrates more each day the extent to which the area of potential threat and geographic instability has shifted from the East to southeastern Europe. This central role on the part of Italy is derived from both her geographic position for Italy, the Balkans are not a remote entity, but a reality that lies just a few dozen kilometres from the Adriatic coast and from her history. Thus, Italys geography, history and political vocation combine to give her a special responsibility, which Italy has not shirked, playing a leading role, at times even acting as the Alliances conscience, emphasising the need to act quickly, in the conviction that the Balkan theatre is not and should not be seen as a zero-sum game, but one in which the dividends reaped can expand the sphere of Euro-Atlantic security.

Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini stated at the Florence NATO Ministerial meeting on 24 May: We have learned from the Balkans that the security and stabilisation of the whole of southeastern Europe must be pursued on a regional and integrated basis. Italy has always adopted this regional interdependence approach. For this reason, Italy did not hesitate to organise and lead Operation Alba during the spring and summer of 1997. This operation also involved, among others, forces from Denmark, France, Greece, Romania, Spain and Turkey (a total of 7 000 troops, including more than 3 000 Italians). Responding to the OSCE and the United Nations, Operation Albas specific mission was to permit the distribution of humanitarian aid, but it was also conceived and conducted in order to prevent a civil war and make it possible for the Albanians to find a solution to their political crisis. And it is important to recall that, as Operation Alba was taking place, Italy continued to deploy thousands of troops in Bosnia, in the context of the IFOR and SFOR missions.

The genesis and subsequent evolution of the Kosovo crisis are still present in the minds of us all and I need not recall the various phases. Suffice it to say that also in those circumstances in a situation of flagrant violations of the most fundamental human rights and values, provoked by a policy of ethnic cleansing Italy clearly understood and foresaw the dimensions of the challenge. It not only provided, by making available airports and naval ports, the entire strategic and logistic base necessary for the success of the military operations, but also participated with its own means. Moreover, Italy has been present from the very outset in KFOR, providing one of the largest contingents. In response to the Mitrovica emergency, Italy sent additional forces, which made it, for a considerable period of time, the largest military contributor in Kosovo. At present, it has a total of 7 500 troops deployed in the framework of the KFOR mission, also including the contingent in Albania, where Italy ensures virtually single-handedly the NATO presence. Furthermore, the Italian contingent ensures the functioning of the Djadovica airport, as well as railway links between Pristina and Skopje. These efforts are complemented by numerous activities conducted by Italian NGOs.

Italys military contingent in the western sector of Kosovo around Pec, which is under its command, is particularly significant and is highly valued by the local population and by the minority groups, both for its assistance in ensuring the functions of daily life and in making possible the observance of religious practices for the various creeds and protecting historical monuments. It is important to point out that this contribution is not only of a military nature, but also concerns the civilian sector. As Foreign Minister Dini said in Florence: In Kosovo... the top priority is to create an area of security for all individuals, to foster the development of civil society and urge the leaders to gradually adopt the values of freedom and democracy.

Also in Kosovo, Italys action is inspired by the two guiding stars of its foreign policy: NATO and the European Union. Indeed, Italy believes that in the Balkans it is necessary to develop both the security dimension ensured by NATO and the economic, financial and civil reconstruction, where the European Union is in the forefront. This reinforces the so-called interlocking institutions system and lays the foundations for further work on what is to become the European Security and Defence Dimension. One of the lessons learned from the Kosovo crisis is that Europe must take up the security challenges. In this regard, while we still have a way to go in order to attain our goal of having a European military crisis management capability to conduct missions, eventually using NATO assets and capabilities, the itinerary to be followed has already been laid down, most recently at the European Council of Feira.

Italy is not only one of the main force contributors in Kosovo, it is also (in third place) among the countries which, at global level, participate in peace operations under UN auspices. Moreover, Italy is in fifth place among UN member countries in terms of financial contributions. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, commenting on Italys involvement in the Balkans and in East Timor, said: Italy is the ideal United Nations member state. In the national military parade, which took place in Rome last June, there were units from the various UN peace missions involving Italy. Just to name a few: Albatross in Mozambique, Pellicano in Albania, Interfet in East Timor, the various missions of the Carabinieri in El Salvador, Cambodia, Somalia, Hebron, Bosnia, Albania and Guatemala, as well as representatives of the Italian forces deployed in the Balkans under NATO auspices.

In conclusion, Italy does not believe that the Balkans have an ineluctable destiny. We are faced there with both risks and opportunities and even that tormented region is acquiring a dynamic vision of history, realising that it also has a right to a future, not only a past, and that it can shake off its identity as the tinder-box of the continent to become a showcase in Europe. In this sense, we are encouraged by the indications of change and openness appearing in Zagreb and by the improvement in the situation in Sarajevo. We hope that such developments may contribute to democratic change also in Serbia in order that it may, as Italy fervently hopes, assume its rightful position in the Euro-Atlantic context. However, the entire region, including Serbia, must first abjure its pessimistic vision, which led Edmund Stillman to say that: The Balkans are exactly the opposite of easy optimism. They teach us that everything ends, everything breaks and everything disintegrates.

Italy and NATO consider civil and economic reconstruction of the Balkans and the consolidation of democratic values and tolerance in that region to be a commitment to civilisation. As President Ciampi stated on 5 May to the North Atlantic Council, if NATO is the only great military alliance to have survived the end of the circumstances leading to its creation, there is a profound reason which touches the very essence of the Western Worlds values. The common strategic interests, values and intentions that inspire European and American culture and which together form a common Euro-American civilisation, enable us to embark with confidence on the missions that await NATO at this dawn of the 21st century.

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