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Support for Balkans' EU Membership Growing

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The Visegrad Group of European Union Foreign Ministers have agreed to support Serbia and other western Balkans countries to become full fledged members of the EU and North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The decision was made at a ministerial meeting in Budapest Tuesday.

Foreign Ministers of the European Union member states Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, known as the Visegrad Group, have agreed to support the Western Balkan states to enter the European Union and NATO military alliance, within the next few years.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Balazs said they also agreed to practically support these nations, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, on their road towards Western integration.

"We are sending messages to the EU concerning visa liberalization towards various countries of the Western Balkan region," he said. "The inclusion of that region into trans-European networks of roads, railways, energy, inland waterways. And concerning NATO the inclusion of more countries into MAP, the Membership Action Plan."

Croatia is already expected to join the EU by 2011, a move Balazs and other ministers said would give further impetus to the process of integration and encouragement to the applicant countries to carry out reforms.

Spain and Belgium, which will hold the rotating EU presidency during 2010, said in Budapest that they also support the integration of the Western Balkan nations.

The Czech, Hungarian, Slovak and Polish Foreign Ministers also called for closer ties with Serbia, saying there is a significant improvement in Serbia's cooperation with the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, a key condition for EU membership.

They said the planned scrapping of visa requirements for travelers from Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, for January 2010, was a significant step in bringing them closer to the EU

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told VOA News that his country had long been waiting for visa-free travel.

"We are really concentrating on the date that is 2010, which is the year when we hope to travel without visas to the countries of the European Union which is in our opinion the year when no countries in the Western Balkans are to be in a situation that they have not had submitted their applications for membership," he said.

But concerns remain over ethnic tensions in the region that diplomats say still hamper full Euro-Atlantic integration of the western Balkans, including in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This week European and U.S. officials will travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina to try to overcome a political deadlock in the Balkan country that has blocked its integration into the EU and NATO.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg will meet officials in Sarajevo on Friday to stimulate political dialogue.

Following an ethnic war between 1992 and 1995, the country has been divided into a Serb Republic and a Muslim-Croat Federation.

Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj told VOA News he hopes the U.S. and EU will provide advice on how to change his fractured country's constitution and how to improve governing the nation.

"We expect the U.S.-EU joined proposal as I see it would bring a breakthrough to Bosnia-Herzegovina because what is happening now is because of the imperfect constitution, which consists of a number of blockages, mechanisms that do not allow that the decision process goes smoothly," he said. "I believe that the constitution of Bosnia should be changed, and should be improved. But we should be realistic. We can not make a revolution."

That's why several delegates at the Budapest meeting said thousands of NATO and EU forces should remain in the volatile region for some time to come.