Germany's Merkel start Balkans visit
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Zagreb Monday for a two-day visit focussing on the Balkan region's European Union membership prospects that will also take her to Serbia.
"This visit comes at an important time for Croatia. I will congratulate the prime minister and the president on these achievements like 20 years of independence and the end of EU accession negotiations," Merkel told journalists travelling on the plane with her.
She added that she wanted Croatia to take a leading role in helping resolve lingering conflicts in the region.
"I will stress that Croatia, with its experience in conflict resolution, should participate constructively to end conflicts in the region," she said.
Merkel gave the examples of Bosnia's difficulties to form a central government and the recent tensions in Kosovo's majority-Serb north.
In an interview on Croatian state television on the eve of her visit, Merkel sought to reassure the Balkans countries that the current financial crisis in the 27-nation bloc would not block European Union enlargement at their expense.
"If Greece, Portugal or Ireland are having trouble, we will not deprive other countries of their (European) perspective," she said.
"We have given the possibility to all the western Balkans countries to become members of the European Union. It depends on the countries' fulfilling the criteria."
Merkel is due to meet her Croatian counterpart Jadranka Kosor and later in the evening President Ivo Josipovic.
Local analysts see the visit as a boost for Kosor ahead of general elections planned for December 4. Kosor's conservative HDZ party has been lagging in the polls, tainted by several major corruption affairs.
Germany is Croatia's second-largest trade partner, after Italy, and the third largest investor in the country. The country's stunning Adriatic coast is also a perennial favourite of German tourists with over 1.5 million of them visiting Croatia in 2010.
The chancellor said that Germany was seeking to "improve economic cooperation" with Zagreb. She pointed to Deutsche Telekom which is the majority shareholder in Croatian telecom T-Hrvatski Telekom as an example.
Merkel will leave for Belgrade in the evening where she will meet Serbian leaders on Tuesday.
Merkel's trip to the Balkans in the middle of the financial crisis engulfing Europe is seen by many as a strong sign of Germany's diplomatic commitment to the region.
It is the first time since 2003 that a German chancellor has visited Zagreb and Belgrade.
Kosovo is due to be the main topic of discussion with Serbian officials in Belgrade.
Merkel's visit takes place a few days ahead of the resumption of EU-mediated talks between Belgrade and Pristina in Brussels on September 2 and almost a month after violent scenes in Kosovo's Serb-majority north.
Although it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Belgrade continues to consider Kosovo a southern province.
"One of my tasks will be to convince Serbia that it must resume dialogue with Kosovo," said Merkel in her weekly podcast broadcast on the Chancellory website on Saturday.
© 2011 AFP