The Greek diplomat responsible for Balkan affairs says 2005 promises to be a critical year for Greece's Balkan neighbors. 

Alexander Mallias, Greece's top diplomat for the Balkans, Tuesday urged the Bush administration to give a higher priority to affairs in southeast Europe. He said the region offers significant opportunities for increased cooperation between Washington and the European Union.  He suggested that there were no major policy differences concerning the region between Europe and the United States.

Mr. Mallias, who is in charge of Balkan affairs at the Greek foreign ministry, told an audience at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center Wednesday that Kosovo's status remains a very difficult issue. Belgrade opposes independence while Pristina demands it.

The EU and Washington say they are likely to make recommendations concerning Kosovo's future later this year. Mr. Mallias says for now the priority should be engaging international financial institutions in Kosovo so that the territory's 60 percent unemployment rate can be reduced.  He says increased cross border cooperation is the best way to bring needed foreign investment to the region.

?It's in our hands, now that state building is finished, to see how we can make these state borders irrelevant in terms of economic cooperation, infrastructure, and attracting foreign direct investment,? said Mr. Mallias.

Mr. Mallias believes regional leaders are determined to end conflict in order to meet the democracy and human rights qualifications of joining the EU He opposes any change to existing borders.

?There's no way to solve the Kosovo issue with partition or division along ethnic lines,? he said.  ?This would create a precedent for other parts of the region.?

Mr. Mallias said decentralized decision making is the best way to address the demands of ethnic minorities for greater autonomy.  He said the 2001 Ohrid agreement that promised greater powers for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority has proven to be a success.