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Vote offers Balkans EU hope despite new problems
Sun Oct 4, 2009 3:51am EDT
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By Adam Tanner
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Ireland's "yes" vote to an EU reform treaty may give hope to Balkan nations in their tortuous path to membership but recent reminders of ethnic divisions and xenophobia in the region may also pose new hurdles.
Referendum results on Saturday showed more than two-thirds of Irish voters backed the European Union's Lisbon treaty, which streamlines the running of the 27-nation bloc and was seen as a step to set its house in order before it could add new members.
Many countries want to join the group, including the six relatively poor countries of the Balkans, but all must first meet a set of rigorous economic, political and social standards.
So far Croatia is well on the way toward membership, Montenegro and Albania have applied, and Serbia and Bosnia hope to do so soon. Macedonia's hopes have been set back by a flare-up of ethnic tension.
"A 'yes' in the Irish referendum ... will make the internal (EU) debate at ease, I would say, which is good for the Balkans," one EU official said before the result was known.
But just when the outlook should be improving, sentiment is turning darker, affected by the slow pace of change, the dismal economy and recent reminders of the region's violent past.
Incidents that have alarmed Balkan watchers include the fatal beating of a French soccer fan last month at a busy Belgrade cafe, and the government cancellation of a gay parade in the city after right-wing groups threatened violence.
Last week Bosnia's Serb Republic threatened to pull out of national government institutions as the split between Bosnia's two administrative halves along wartime ethnic lines widened.
Foreign governments have called a special conference in Sarajevo next Friday to deal with the issue. Bosnia has received more than $14 billion in aid since its 1992-95 war, which killed 100,000 in Europe's worst fighting since World War Two.
Serbian leaders, in particular, are frustrated by the setbacks.
"The fight against violence is our top priority, it is more important than anything, including European integration," President Boris Tadic told reporters on Thursday. "I see an unbroken thread between the violence which happened in the 1990s ... and the constant search for enemies in society."
Serbia enjoyed robust economic growth and elected a new pro-Western government in 2008. But in the past year the economy has fallen into recession, with a 23 percent devaluation in the currency and the loss of more than 150,000 jobs.
Although their hoped-for EU membership is many years away, citizens of Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro are expected to gain visa-free travel to the EU in January, a privilege once enjoyed by Yugoslavs and lost in the 1990s.
The gay pride rally and xenophobic incidents therefore come at a "very sensitive" time for Serbia, said Judy Batt, a expert on EU-Balkan ties at the University of Birmingham. Continued...
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