Serbia should improve its ties with Kosovo and continue working on reforms, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in Belgrade. He also described the current wave of anti-goverment rallies as a "part of democracy."
Germany is ready to support Serbia's on its way to joining the EU, Gabriel said after meeting Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic on Wednesday.
"We believe that the path that [Serbia] wants to take is a good one," Gabriel said after kicking off his mini-tour of the Balkans.
At the Belgrade press conference, the German representative warned that "old demons" were waking up in some parts of the Balkans, but praised Serbia as an "anchor of stability" that helps reduce tensions.
Ties with Kosovo 'essential'
Germany's foreign minister is also set to visit Kosovo on Thursday, followed by Albania next week, where he is expected to urge the Balkan states to keep moving towards Brussels. The Balkans are currently facing a fresh rise of nationalism with ruling parties using xenophobic rhetoric to boost their support in the impoverished region. Tensions run especially high between Serbia and the Albanian-majority Kosovo, which Belgrade still regards as a runaway province.
According to Gabriel, Belgrade needs to keep up the reforms and "continue to develop better relations with Kosovo."
"That is an essential precondition for accession to the European Union," he said.
Gabriel also congratulated Prime Minister Vucic for winning the presidential election earlier this month. Vucic, who is set to take over as head of state by the end of May, enjoys Western support despite accusations of growing autocracy and suppressing dissent in Serbia.
Protests 'quite common'
Vucic's recent election victory triggered widespread protests in many Serbian cities, with protesters accusing him of manipulating the media and rigging election results. Commenting on the protests on Wednesday, Gabriel said that they were a "part of democracy."
"If you want to get into the EU, you must know that demonstrations and protests against democratically-elected governments and president are possible, permitted and within the EU, quite common," he said.
The Balkans are still reeling from the aftermath of the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The religiously and ethnically diverse region has a large strategic importance for Russia, the EU, and Turkey, with each major power trying to project its influence through local players. Despite conflicting interests, the EU remains by far the most important foreign partner for Balkan regimes, providing economic aid, as well as political and infrastructure projects.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, toured the region last month, seeking to reassure those governments that the EU was still willing to accept them as members, despite strife inside the bloc.
dj/kms (Beta, Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP)