CEOL - Visgerad-4 Issues Chechnya/Yugoslavia Declaration

GERLACHOV, Slovakia, Dec 4, 1999 -- (Reuters) The Presidents of the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia issued a joint declaration on Friday pledging to help reconstruct Yugoslavia and warning Russia to respect civilians in its offensive in Chechnya.

The statement was the most wide ranging and ambitious from the four countries since they revitalised the Visegrad Four group, which unites the wealthiest and most powerful of eastern Europe's former Soviet bloc countries, earlier this year.

Analysts say the Visegrad Four countries are attempting to play a bigger role in European affairs to enhance the stability of their own region and prove their worth to the European Union, which they are leading candidates to join.

"The Visegrad group believes in the indivisibility of European security and is therefore prepared to play an active and positive role in the process of its stabilization and reconstruction in south east Europe," the leaders said in their Tatra Declaration.

All of the four, apart from Slovakia, joined NATO just prior to the Kosovo conflict. Many have close trading relationships with Yugoslavia and Hungary shares a border with the country.

The Tatra Declaration also expressed deep concern at reports of civilian casualties in Chechnya as Russian forces, which kept a stranglehold on eastern Europe from 1945 to 1989, close in on the Chechen capital of Grozny.

"The presidents of the Visegrad Four are following the situation in Chechnya with worry and concern. They don't want the fight against terrorism turned into a fight against the unarmed population, or that it leads to violations of human rights and the rights of the people and minorities."

The group welcomed the victory of Leonid Kuchma in Ukraine's presidential elections last month and called on NATO to invite Slovakia to join the alliance to bring greater stability to central Europe and the continent as a whole.

The Visegrad Four group is named after a castle in northern Hungary where the group held its first meeting after the fall of communism.

Once seen as a useful instrument for regional cooperation, the group all but fell apart as Slovakia bickered with its Hungarian neighbor over Slovakia's 500,000 strong ethnic Hungarian minority.

The 1998 election of a reformist Slovak government brought a thaw in relations and opened the way for the Visegrad Four to play a more active role.

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