Germany's Merkel to start Balkans visit
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to reassure Balkan nations that the financial crisis will not hurt the region's EU membership prospects, ahead of a trip to Croatia Monday focused on the issue.
In an interview on Croatian state television on the eve of her visit, Merkel vowed that the current financial crisis in the 27-nation bloc would not block European Union enlargement at the cost of the Balkans countries.
"No. 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," she said when asked if the current crisis would slow down enlargement.
"If Greece, Portugal or Ireland are having trouble, we will not deprive other countries of their (European) perspective," she stressed.
Merkel is due to arrive in Zagreb around 4:00 pm (1400 GMT). She will meet her Croatian counterpart Jadranka Kosor and later in the evening President Ivo Josipovic.
Local analysts see the visit as a boost for prime minister 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 visiting Croatia in 2010.
Merkel will leave for Belgrade in the evening where she will meet Serbian leaders Tuesday.
Merkel's trip to Croatia and Serbia 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 leader of the German government has visited Zagreb and Belgrade.
In her interview Merkel also urged Croatia, which is due to join the EU in summer 2013 to help other Balkans countries on their European path.
"I will ask that Croatia makes an effort for countries that are not very far yet (on the EU path) like Bosnia-Hercegovina and to ensure that the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo does not escalate," she said.
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 considers 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.
In an interview with Serbian newsagency Tanjug the German ambassador to Belgrade, Wolfram Maas, said that Berlin would not insist Serbia recognises Kosovo as a condition for joining the European Union.
"What we expect is that Serbia finds a solution for the Kosovo problem, we are convinced dialogue is the best way" he said, stressing that Brussels wants future EU members to have good relations with neighbouring countries.
He recalled the example of West and East Germany stressing that while West Germany never officially recognised the communist German state "we did find solutions for our problems and normalised our relations, despite our differences".
© 2011 AFP