Presidency kicks off with Balkan tour

Underlining the special emphasis that Athens will place on its neighborhood during the next six months, Foreign Minister George Papandreou begins Greece’s term as president of the EU with a three-day tour of the Balkans that starts today. The aim of the visit is to examine forms of cooperation with these countries so that they will soon be able to become members of the union. Bulgaria and Romania, which could join the EU by 2007, are not on Papandreou’s itinerary. The tour will start in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia this morning. Papandreou will meet with President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Branco Cervenkovski and Parliament speaker Nikola Popovski. He will also hold talks with opposition leaders, including the former ethnic-Albanian rebel leader Ali Ahmeti. Later today, Papandreou will go to Tirana with his Danish and Italian colleagues as part of the EU troika’s visit to Albania. The European Commission’s foreign and defense policy chief Javier Solana and External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten will also be visiting Tirana. Here Papandreou will meet with Prime Minister Fatos Nano and Foreign Minister Ilir Meta. Tomorrow, Papandreou will visit the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia. On Wednesday he will go to Sarajevo, to attend the ceremony in which the EU will take over the task of running the international police force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After this, the Greek minister will visit Pristina, capital of the Serb province of Kosovo. The province has been under UN rule since NATO’s war against Yugoslavia in 1999 but the final status of Kosovo has still not been determined. This is expected to be a point of intensive discussions on the future of the region this year. Papandreou’s visit to the western Balkans comes at a time when Greece once-testy relations with its neighbors have changed to a great extent and Athens has been providing aid and encouraging these countries to draw closer to the EU. One outstanding issue is that of a final name for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but despite this, both Athens and Skopje say that relations between them are excellent.

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