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Europe

Balkan States Have High Hopes of Joining the European Club

Southeastern Europeans expect more political stability and economic benefits from joining the EU but are also wary of inflation and their job prospects, an opinion poll has shown.

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Croatians are skeptical about the EU, though they're likely to be the next to join

In 2004, the European Union absorbed 10 new members, mostly from the former Eastern bloc. Now, poorer countries further south of the continent, including those from the formerly war-torn Balkans, have high hopes of joining the club. The more developed of the lot -- Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia -- have been given a clear signal from Brussels for the next expansion, though lately some EU core members, such as France and Germany, are having second thoughts about how rapidly to proceed.

What the political elites in the candidate countries and EU politicians want is one thing, but what are the expectations of ordinary citizens from Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia?

Last autumn ÖGfE, an Austrian institute for European policy, and PLG, an Austrian social research institute, conducted a broad public opinion survey, polling 1,000 nationals from those countries.

Varied expectations for different countries

Alltag in Albanien

Hopes of joining the EU are highest in Albania, one of Europe's poorest countries

Not surprisingly, citizens of all seven countries expected greater political stability and economic gains from EU entry. The survey found that the poorer the country, the higher the hopes of EU entry. Those whose candidate status remains at the bottom of the heap, such as Albania and Bosnia, were the most optimistic, with 90 percent and 80 percent of respondents respectively, expecting improvements. Conversely, the better the chances of EU entry, the lower the expectations: only half of respondents in Croatia said their lives would become better. In Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania, about 70 percent of respondents associated the EU with better times.

Respondents in all countries also agreed that the downside of EU membership was inflationary prices, though the expectation was that wage levels would rise accordingly. Many however, had doubts that job market prospects would improve.

"Plenty of folks in some of the countries don't quite believe that the greater capital investment from abroad (that comes with EU membership) will necessarily translate into jobs," commented Gerhard Bauer, head of the ÖGfE institute.

Austria benefits from EU enlargement in the Balkans

Sparschwein und Euro

Most Balkan nationals prefer keeping their savings at home

With its geographical advantage in Central Europe, Austrian companies, and banks in particular, are very well-positioned to benefit from an enlarged EU in the southeast region.

One of the questions in the survey had to do with where respondents felt most comfortable about investing their savings -- at a local bank, a foreign bank in their home country or under the mattress. In Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia, fully one-quarter of the respondents were prepared to put their savings into a foreign (Austrian) bank, but only 7 percent of Bulgarians and 11 percent of Romanians felt comfortable about doing so. "On the other hand, quite a number of Austrian banks have taken over local ones recently," said Bauer.

In some of the Balkan countries -- Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia -- the majority felt most comfortable with keeping cash in the home. Others -- Bulgarians, Romanians and Albanians -- mostly trusted their home-grown banks.

Certainly much of the distrust of banks in general stems from the belief that corruption would not necessarily diminish in a better economic climate. Only in Albania, one of the poorest candidate countries, did the majority of respondents agree that corruption would decline. A majority in all the other countries equated corruption with the communist past and said it has even risen and would continue to remain at a high level.

Diverging views on treatment of war criminals

Kriegsverbrecher-Prozess gegen Milosevic

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appearing before UN war crimes tribunal

One final survey question concerned whether war criminals from the former Yugoslavia should stand trial before an international tribunal or one in their home country. Here the differences of opinion among the Balkan states were clear.

Serbs and Croatians wanted trials to be held in their own countries. The controversial circumstances surrounding former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who died on Saturday in custody while being tried by the United Nations for war crimes, has Serbs divided over the role of international tribunals.

On the other hand, a majority of Albanians and half of all Bosnians, who were largely victims of ethnic cleansing during the war in the Balkans, said that war criminals should be tried in international courts of justice.

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