Foreign Ministers from across the Western Balkans say substantially improved ties with Europe and the United States will be critical to stabilizing the Southeastern European region that some experts describe as vulnerable to anti-Western foreign influences.
In Washington for a conference on U.S. strategy in the region, the officials told VOA in separate interviews that uniform EU and NATO membership is critical to European security and sustained democratic rule.
"What we need is to strengthen democracies governed by the rule of law," said Macedonian Foreign Minister Nikola Dimitrov, whose country has been an EU and NATO membership candidate since 2005. "Our region is surrounded by NATO member states and EU member states. It's about consolidating Europe; it's about ensuring that — as the migrant crisis showed — this region is an integral part of the system of democracies on our continent.
"It is true we have increased tensions in the region as a consequence of renewed hostilities between the West and Russian Federation," he added. "But it's not about liking or disliking Russia — and I don't think this should be an either-or choice — it's about the voices of our citizens, who would like to see Macedonia as part of the alliance. This is our destiny. This is our journey."
Having engaged the EU membership action plan for 17 cycles, he said, Macedonia is slated begin its next cycle in Brussels on Dec. 11.
"It is high time to finish this unfinished business," he told VOA. "This will be good for the region; it will be good for NATO and, for any country that cares for the stability of the [Balkans] region, they should be behind our NATO bid."
A new report published by the Atlantic Council ahead of this week's conference on Southeastern Europe described the Western Balkans as “the unfinished business of a Europe whole and free.”
The conference was followed by individual meetings between the Balkan ministers and top U.S. officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, A. Wess Mitchell, and White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
"McMaster spoke very seriously about what U.S. considers the greatest security challenges in Western Balkans, and he emphasized that the United States is not losing interest, nor has it the intention to be inactive in the Western Balkans," said Montenegrin Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic.
"On the contrary," he told VOA, McMaster said the U.S. is "very interested in obtaining stability and democracy and willing to support Euro-Atlantic integration for those Balkan countries that want to join.”
Montenegro, the smallest Balkan country, began EU accession talks in 2012 and became the 29th member of NATO at a ceremony at the State Department in June, despite fierce objections from Russia.
Formerly part of communist Yugoslavia, Montenegro became an independent republic in 2006 when Montenegrins voted in a referendum to split from Serbia.
Addressing Wednesday's conference, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said Belgrade intends to remain on the path to EU membership while maintaining free trade agreements with Turkey and the Russian Federation. He also described the EU as Serbia's "first foreign policy partner" and touted his country's improved economic relations with the United States.
"I want to say that in the Western Balkans, we are the most important economic partners [with the U.S.]," citing joint infrastructure transit projects.
The Atlantic Council report proposes a permanent, Kosovo-based American military presence in the Balkans to help fortify the region against Russian efforts to exert political influence. Asked if he felt the proposal arose from U.S. concerns over a Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center in the Serbian city of Nis, Dacic was dismissive.
“If five Russians, four Serbs and one dog are seen as equal to Bondsteel, that terrifies me," he said in reference to Camp Bondsteel, a U.S. and NATO military base established in Kosovo in 1999.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern in June about the new disaster relief center that Russia is operating in Nis. Some Western groups and military analysts see it as a subtly disguised military base designed to spy on U.S. interests in the Balkans.
"I want to emphasize this," Dacic told VOA's Serbian Service. "When the elephants are making love or fighting, either way the grass is damaged. Serbia doesn’t want to be that grass, or in other words — in the position of the small and weak. That’s why we have to pay attention to our own interests.”
Serbia, which has been negotiating its EU accession since January 2014, has never strategized to join NATO, which bombed Yugoslavia in 1999.
The situation is the reverse for Albania, which has been a NATO member since 2009 but is still awaiting a green light to open accession talks with the EU, a decision expected early next year.
Albanian Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati told VOA his country has been moving ahead on reform of its justice system and other measures to facilitate those talks.
"I want to emphasize the fight against organized crime and corruption, the progress in consolidating the reforms in the public administration and the respect for human rights," he said. "So I expect, and it is totally possible, that 2018 will be the year that Albania will start membership negotiations with EU and we will sit in the negotiating table with concrete results from the justice reform and the fight against organized crime and corruption.”
In another interview, Bosnian Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak said he was reassured by his meetings Thursday with U.S. diplomats and White House officials.
"Meeting with Wess Mitchell was very important, because I could see determination to help the region, and Bosnia, to move forward and continue implementing reforms," said Crnadak, whose Muslim-majority nation is viewed as vital to Europe’s defense against international terrorist organizations targeting the European mainland.
Bosnia, an EU membership candidate, has also been aiming to join NATO since April 2010, when it received a Membership Action Plan at a summit in Tallinn.
In a statement released late Thursday, White House National Security Advisor McMaster noted that "the Western Balkans continues to be a high priority for the United States" and underscored that the Trump administration "remains fully committed to the region’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and European integration efforts."
Original reporting by Milena Djurdjic of VOA's Serbian Service, Amra Alirejsovic of VOA's Bosnian Service, and Laura Konda of VOA's Albanian Service.