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Converting former military bases in Southeastern Europe

Romanian street children addicted to drugs could be among the first beneficiaries of an innovative NATO-sponsored programme aimed at finding productive new uses for former military bases in Southeastern Europe.

Potential beneficiary (© Radu Signeti/Reuters)

The homeless children stand to benefit from this pioneering programme, if, as planned, a former air-force base outside the town of Fundulea, about 35 kilometres east of the capital Bucharest, is converted into a hospital and rehabilitation centre. The groundbreaking Fundulea project is one of a series of collaborative initiatives involving NATO and other institutions in the framework of the EU-sponsored Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe designed to convert former military bases and, in this way, help revitalise local economies.

Defence spending cuts, troop reductions and reform of NATO armed forces in the 1990s led to the closure of more than 8,000 military bases in Western Europe and North America with a combined area of more than 500,000 square kilometres. In the wake of this restructuring, NATO nations have developed considerable expertise in redeveloping former military sites for civilian purposes, which can now be shared with Partner countries, whose militaries are only now undergoing similar downsizing.

"There is no 'silver bullet' or patented recipe for redevelopment that works everywhere and differences from site to site and country to country can be enormous," says Frédérique Jacquemin of the Economics Directorate of NATO's Political Affairs Division. "Despite this, much can be learned through the exchange of ideas and experiences to build on success stories and avoid repeating mistakes."

Ms Jacquemin put together a team of experts from NATO member states to visit Romania, after Romanian envoys requested Alliance assistance for base conversion at a meeting of the Stability Pact's security table in Zagreb, Croatia, last June. The NATO team, which included members from Canada, France, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom and the United States, travelled to Romania in November to examine the redevelopment potential of two sites identified by the Romanian Ministry of Defence, including that at Fundulea.

Bucharest requested Alliance help in this field as a result of the success of another innovative NATO-sponsored programme aimed at assisting return to civilian life of recently and soon-to-be-discharged military personnel in Romania, as well as in Bulgaria and Croatia. Both programmes come within the framework of the Stability Pact, which facilitates collaboration with international financial institutions, commercial lenders and potential donors.

In the case of Fundulea, the Council of Europe Development Bank has expressed an interest in financing the redevelopment and a bank representative accompanied the NATO team on their November visit. The Stability Pact is now seeking donor funding for a feasibility study. In the other pilot project examined by the NATO team, involving office, sport facilities, tourist attractions and housing redevelopments at Mangalia on the Black Sea coast, commercial lenders, donors and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have expressed an interest. Meanwhile, the European Investment Bank is interested in the larger process beyond the pilot projects.

"Our aim is to help build capacity in Southeastern Europe so that the countries of the region can tackle the problems of converting and redeveloping former military installations," Jacquemin says. "The pilot projects are intended to help start the process of developing comprehensive base-closure and conversion strategies through practical demonstrations of the principles and possibilities."

As the first positive results of the Romanian base-conversion programme began to materialise, Bulgaria requested similar assistance from NATO. As a result, a NATO expert team is scheduled to visit in late spring to make a preliminary assessment. Meanwhile, Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have also expressed interest in participating in the programme.

Both the base-conversion and the military-personnel retraining programmes form part of NATO's South East Europe Initiative, an initiative launched in 1999 at the height of the Kosovo air campaign to contribute to building stability in Southeastern Europe.

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