Balkan countries try to forge trade links, boost investment

CAVTAT, Croatia (Reuters) – Balkan countries, along with Ukraine and Moldova, plan to sign a joint free-trade agreement by the end of this year, Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said yesterday. The aim would be to make their countries more competitive and attractive to foreign investors, he told Reuters on the sidelines of a financial conference. «We expect that the CEFTA (Central European Free Trade Agreement) deal will be signed by the end of the year,» he said. «All of our countries are small and, seen individually, not very attractive. The customs-free treaty will create a market of 55 million people, attractive for serious investment.» After the fall of communism, the original CEFTA included Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Slovenia and the Baltic states joined later. All of them became European Union members in 2004, leaving CEFTA to Bulgaria and Romania, due to join the EU next year, and Croatia, which hopes to join by 2010. Serbia, Bosnia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania have been very keen to win CEFTA membership, which would facilitate trade and investment in the Balkans. Croatia, wary of any Balkan associations reminiscent of the former Yugoslavia, insisted on bringing in Ukraine and Moldova. «It will be up to each country to attract investors. This is a region with the highest economic growth rate in the world, after Asia. However, we have to keep working on boosting political stability and institutions,» Dinkic said.