Merkel seeks to reassure Balkans on EU ambitions

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel Monday sought to reassure Balkan nations the financial crisis will not hurt their EU membership prospects, as she hailed Croatia for setting an example on the first stop of her regional tour.

"Croatia's membership brings a positive signal to other countries in the region, because we want other states of the Western Balkans to have a European perspective," Merkel said in Zagreb.

Her trip, which will also include Serbia, coming in the middle of the European financial crisis is seen by many as a strong sign of Germany's diplomatic commitment to the countries that once made up Yugoslavia.

Croatia is due to become the EU's next member in mid-2013.

Recalling the violent past of the region still scarred by the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, she said, "There have been a lot of difficult moments."

"We will now make all political effort from the German side to provide aid to those countries in the region to make it easier for them to work better towards the goal of joining the EU," she said.

Ahead of her arrival in Zagreb she told journalists 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 in forming a central government and the recent tensions in Kosovo's majority-ethnic Serb north.

Local analysts see the visit to Zagreb as a boost for Prime Minister Jadranka 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.

Merkel will leave for Belgrade later Monday evening where she will meet Serbian leaders on Tuesday.

In Zagreb she outlined what her message for Serbia would be.

"My story in Belgrade will be this: look at Croatia, they succeeded, we want you to have peace, to improve, to develop socially and economically... to join us at the table, but you need to do something in return," she explained.

"One of the preconditions for Serbia (for joining the EU) is Kosovo, that relations between those states get normalised," she said.

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 near Kosovo's border with Serbia, a region of predominantly ethnic Serbs.

Although Kosovo with its ethnic Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia in 2008, Belgrade continues to consider it a southern province.

© 2011 AFP

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