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Merkel Praises Debt-Averse Balkans, Contrasts With Greece

Balkan countries aspiring for European Union membership can reach their goals despite the crisis in Greece, Angela Merkel said July 8 as she began a two-day tour of the region.

The German chancellor visited Albania and Serbia whose ambitions to join the EU have been complicated by the Greek financial turmoil. She is to travel to Bosnia on July 9.

Merkel praised Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is campaigning for Serbia's EU membership despite strong opposition from a pro-Russian nationalist bloc, for accepting austerity demands from creditors.

"I think the prime minister is pursuing this policy not because he wants to please anyone outside Serbia, but out of the conviction that less debt, less new debt, leads in the end to lower interest payments and more room to spend and invest in the future," Merkel said in Belgrade.

Merkel, who is in the midst of a monumental standoff with Greece over its bloated $380 billion in debts, noted the contrast between the debt habits and attitudes in Greece compared to other Balkan countries. She said there's a lesson to be drawn.

"I think we are not seeing that things in Greece are going so successfully at the moment," she said. Greece is on the verge of insolvency and has had to shut down its banks for two weeks to avoid collapse in a debacle that has been roiling markets around the world.

"We are in a very different situation here [in Serbia], in which a government is pursuing out of conviction a path that is not easy, but one which will — just as in Ireland, in Portugal, in Spain — yield success. I am firmly convinced of that," Merkel said.

Serbia, Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina have declared their desire to join the EU, and are in differing stages of accomplishing that goal.

Serbia and Albania have been given candidate status, but they have yet to start accession talks.

Macedonia's progress is stuck because Greece disputes its right to call itself by that name, which is also the name for a northern province of Greece.

Governments in the region fear their progress towards EU membership could stall because of enlargement fatigue and fallout from the Greek crisis.

Despite her upbeat comments, analysts expect Merkel and other EU leaders to be more wary in the future of admitting countries with troubled economies because of Greece.

Still, Merkel signalled that the Balkan region's stability remains crucial to the EU, and she believes efforts to join the bloc should help to promote stability.

"It is in our own interests that the countries in the Western Balkans have a European perspective," she said.

"I can tell you, nothing will be artificially delayed. There won't be any difficulties constructed," she said at a news conference in Tirana with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama at her side.

"I think it is widely recognized that Albania is taking big steps forward," Merkel said, while encouraging the nation to deepen economic reforms to achieve EU standards.

Rama said he was concerned about "propaganda" suggesting that Albania's mixed Muslim and Christian population was getting in the way of its accession to the EU.

Merkel rejected the notion out of hand.

"Four million Muslims live in Germany, and we live well together. So the idea that we wouldn't want to have Albania in the European Union because Muslims live here and more Christians live in our country -- that is completely wrong."

Merkel said she realized an influx of illegal migrants making their way to the EU through the Balkans is causing problems, and promised Germany would help.

Aside economic problems, the Balkan countries have a history of ethnic strife which in some cases is hampering their EU ambitions.

Serbia and Bosnia fought a war in the 1990s that left at least 100,000 people dead and millions homeless, and their relations are still tense.

Tensions reminiscent of the war flared just this week as Vucic prevailed upon Russia to veto a United Nations resolution condemning the massacre in Srebrenica as a "genocide" -- a word that Serbs feel is unjustified to describe the killing of 8,000 Muslims there.

Serbia also refuses to recognize the independence of its former ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo — something enthusiastically supported by Albania — even if that could ultimately spell the end of Serbia's EU dream.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP
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