WHEN the foreign ministers of the Balkan countries met in Belgrade in September 1987 to discuss avenues of possible cooperation, many watchful observers of southeastern Europe raised a collective eyebrow. It was difficult to recall when history had last recorded a meeting of these foreign ministers (Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and Yugoslavia) for a peaceful and constructive purpose. This Yugoslav initiative proved to be most timely. Since the group includes two NATO members, two in the Warsaw Pact, one nonaligned, and one neutral, it was important that the atmosphere between the United States and the Soviet Union should be conducive to such an effort. As it happened, the superpowers were negotiating the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty amid reduced tensions.
The two NATO members, Greece and Turkey, had toned down their longstanding conflict over Cyprus and a string of bilateral matters. Albania, in self-imposed isolation for many years, had shown signs of being willing to emerge from its shell, although its relations with Yugoslavia have long been uneasy. Romania and Bulgaria, both in the Warsaw Pact, were ready to talk to all the others.
The outcome of the meeting was modest. The most important result was that it was held and went off without fireworks and polemics. The ministers put forward some ideas for cooperation and agreed to study them.
The key to a positive outcome was a consensus to concentrate on multilateral issues rather than on bilateral problems. Further, the ministers for the most part looked toward possibilities for practical cooperation rather than the resolution of political issues. The agreement reached between the European Community and the East bloc's Council for Mutual Economic Assistance was also a small plus.
The next significant meeting was in Sofia last June. Foreign Ministry officials of the six countries agreed on a series of forthcoming working meetings: in Yugoslavia, by the end of 1988 on common transportation problems; in Bulgaria, in November 1988 on environmental protection; in Romania, in 1989 on industrial and technical cooperation; in Turkey, in early 1989 on economic/commercial matters; and a number of other unscheduled meetings.
What is notable is that each country is host to a major meeting, including Albania, the former recluse. As part of an effort to fit in two meetings a year of Foreign Ministry officials, their next meeting is to be held in Tirana in January 1989.
Political/security issues were also raised and predictably tabled for further consideration. The Romanians, it appears, suggested a meeting of heads of state or government, but it seemed premature to the others.
The old chestnut of transforming the Balkans into a nuclear-free zone (free of chemical weapons as well) was set aside, because it was aimed at NATO members Greece and Turkey and the US nuclear weapons believed to be stationed on their territories. On the other hand, a meeting of experts on confidence- and security-building measures was recommended for 1989 in Bucharest.
Other ideas under consideration include combating terrorism and the trafficking in drugs and arms, humanitarian matters, health, and agriculture.
To the man or woman in the street, even in the Balkans, this may seem like small potatoes. Certainly, no one can derive any assurances from this initial effort that multilateral talks will help resolve existing bilateral issues. But to those who know their history, the age-old conflicts of languages, cultures, and religions, and the wars waged by propagandists, politicians, and armies, the Balkan states have taken a big step toward strengthening peace and beginning cooperation.