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EU 'Most Reliable Partner' For Western Balkan Countries

European Council President Donald Tusk (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speak to the press in Belgrade on April 25.

European Council President Donald Tusk has said that the European Union aims to further strengthen economic and other cooperation with Serbia and the other Western Balkan countries as they edge toward eventual membership.

"I came with a clear message: the European Union is, and wants to remain the most reliable partner for Serbia and the entire Western Balkans region," Tusk said on April 25 after meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade.

"The future of Serbia will be decided neither by Moscow, nor Washington. Neither by Ankara, nor by Brussels. It will be decided only by Belgrade," he added.

Serbia is seeking to join the EU but at the same time attempting to preserve its traditional strong ties with Russia, which shares its Orthodox Christian heritage and has supported Belgrade in numerous disputes with the West.

Tusk's visit was part of a weeklong tour of Western Balkans ahead of the May 17 summit of EU and regional leaders in Sofia, Bulgaria, which Tusk said would "reconfirm our readiness to continue the work on a European perspective for the region."

EU officials have urged Serbia, which is one of six Western Balkan countries that remain outside the bloc, to normalize ties with Kosovo in order to be able to join by 2025.

Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, declared independence in 2008 -- nearly a decade after the 1998-99 Kosovo war. More than 110 countries recognize its independence. Serbia does not.

Tusk said Kosovo was a "difficult and emotionally charged issue" for Serbia, but that resolving it will "pay off in the long run."

Vucic said Belgrade wants to reach a compromise on Kosovo "so that our children don't have the same problem as we do today."

The Serbian president said he and the head of the European Investment Bank, Werner Hoyer, had signed a 45 million-euro ($54.82 million) loan deal to upgrade joint air-traffic control of Serbia and Montenegro to meet EU regulations.

Tusk has already visited Albania and Montenegro and travels to Kosovo next.

With reporting by AP and Reuters