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Europe

Schröder Makes First Postwar Trip To Balkans

Gerhard Schröder is the first German chancellor to visit Serbia and Croatia since the wars broke out in former Yugoslavia. He is in the region to discuss EU membership and the U.N. war crimes tribunal.

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The chancellor practices his greeting ahead of his historic visit to the Balkans

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder continues his whirlwind tour of the Balkans on Wednesday as he moves on from the Slovak Republic to hold talks with Serbian and Croatian leaders. In doing so, he will become the first German chancellor to visit Belgrade and Zagreb since 1985 and the first to return to the capitals after the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Schröder kicked off his Balkan tour in Slovakia early Wednesday by offering his support to a government which, much like his own, is attempting to force through a series of unpopular reforms ahead of its accession to the European Union next year.

Later in Belgrade, Schröder will engage in three-way discussions with Serbian President Svetozar Marovic and President Filip Vujanovic of Montenegro. Although the focus is primarily economic co-operation, the chancellor will also be required to smooth over relationships between the Balkans and Germany which are currently a little rocky.

NATO support fosters hostility

Sicherheitszone Kosovo/Jugoslawien

KFOR troops on the Kosovo/Serbia border.

There remains a certain amount of hostility towards Germany in Serbia-Montenegro stemming from the support the Germans offered to Croatia and Bosnia in their bids for independence in 1991 and its backing of NATO military action against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis in 1999.

Schröder will have to step carefully if he wishes to combine his offer of an olive branch with serious discussions on reaching a political solution to the continuing ethnic difficulties in Kosovo and Belgrade’s cooperation with the United Nations war tribunal in The Hague.

Serbia’s leadership is currently in the midst of a crisis over the indictment by the international court of four police officers and army generals accused of war crimes. The case has prompted heavy criticism from the Serbian government.

Other areas of discussion, according to a statement from the chancellery in Berlin, will include the strengthening of the democratization process in the region which has been thrown into turmoil after the assassination of former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March of this year.

War crimes record could damage EU hopes

Stjepan Mesic

Croatia's President Stjepan Mesic.

On Thursday the German chancellor will then visit Croatia where the subject of war crimes tribunal will also be high on the agenda in talks with Schröder’s Croatian counterpart Ivica Racan and President Stipe Mesic (picture) in Zagreb. Schröder is likely to address the possible harm that the failure to arrest retired general Ante Gotovina, wanted by the U.N. tribunal, could do to Croatia’s EU aspirations which are geared towards a possible accession to the bloc in 2007.

He is expected to warn the Croatians that more needs to be done before negotiations on EU membership can begin.

More positively, the chancellor’s visit ahead of crucial parliamentary elections at the end of November will be seen as a vote of confidence and support for the country’s ruling pro-European Social Democrats, who took over from nationalists four years ago.

Schröder told the Croatian independent daily newspaper Jutarnji List, "I am impressed by changes towards a real parliamentarian democracy which occurred during the past years." He also praised the "impressive" progress the Balkan country had made and promised Germany's continued support.

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