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Yugoslav, Croatian Presidents Pledge Closer Ties - 2002-06-01

Yugoslavia and Croatia have agreed to ease and eventually abolish visa restrictions in a sign of improving relations between the former wartime adversaries. The agreement was made in Slovenia on the sidelines of a summit that included leaders from 13 Central European countries hoping to join the European Union within the next few years.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and his Croatian counterpart, Stipe Mesic, said at the two-day summit, which also included heads of state from Italy, Austria and Germany, that it was time to heal the wounds of their countrys' troubled history.

The meeting, held in the Brdo Pri Kranju castle, 25 kilometers northwest of Slovenia's capital Ljubljana, focused on European Union enlargement for former Communist countries.

Mr. Kostunica and Mr. Mesic said in a joint statement that Yugoslavia and Croatia, who fought a war the early 1990s and established diplomatic ties six years ago, wanted to be part of European integration and hoped that by making it easier for people to visit friends and family living across the border, they would be able to pave their way into EU membership more quickly. Mr. Kostunica told reporters that the current borders between the two neighbors "are not European," because they prevent friends and family who live in both countries to visit each other easily. Solving border disputes and other tensions with neighbors is a major condition for European Union membership.

Other countries attending the meeting made similar statements regarding the easing of tensions.

Hungarian President Ferenc Madl said his country had solved a dispute with Romania over a controversial law which provides millions of ethnic Hungarians with social benefits, including free education and temporary work permits. Most ethnic Hungarians live in territories that Hungary was forced to give up shortly after World War One I the Treaty of Trianon.

Hungary, as well as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are actively campaigning to join the EU in 2004. During the meeting, the countries also expressed support for those hoping to become members in a second wave of enlargement, including Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Moldova and the Ukraine.

Slovenian President Milan Kucan, who hosted the meeting, said he hoped that Central Europe would no longer be seen as a "bridge between Europe's East and West," and that the region would be "firmly anchored within the EU." He added that the history of the war-torn region should be a base for a "dialogue and not future confrontation."