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Merkel visits Balkans amid Greek crisis

German Chancellor Angela Merkel listens to questions during a final media conference after an emergency summit of eurozone heads of state and government at the EU Council building in Brussels on Tuesday, July 7, 2015. EU leaders have called for a full EU summit to take place on Sunday, July 12, 2015 to continue discussion on the Greek crisis. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — The Balkan countries aspiring for European Union membership can reach their goals despite the crisis in Greece, Angela Merkel said Wednesday as she began a two-day tour of the region.

The German chancellor visited Albania and Serbia whose ambitions to join the EU have been complicated by the Greek financial turmoil. She is to travel to Bosnia on Thursday.

Merkel praised Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is campaigning for Serbia’s EU membership despite strong opposition from a pro-Russian nationalist bloc, for accepting austerity demands from the creditors.

“I think the prime minister is pursuing this policy not because he wants to please anyone outside Serbia, but out of the conviction that less debt, less new debt, leads in the end to lower interest payments and more room to spend and invest in the future,” Merkel said in Belgrade. “And I think we are not seeing that things in Greece are going so successfully at the moment.”

“We are in a very different situation here (in Serbia), in which a government is pursuing out of conviction a path that is not easy, but one which will — just as in Ireland, in Portugal, in Spain — yield success. I am firmly convinced of that,” Merkel added.

Serbia, Albania and Bosnia have declared their desire to join the EU, but in the wake of the Greek bailout turmoil Merkel and other EU leaders are likely to be more wary of admitting countries with troubled economies.

Earlier in Albania, Merkel said there is no artificial delay in the countries’ EU entry prospects but said they should deepen reforms to achieve the required standards.

Aside from the economic problems, the Balkan countries have a history of ethnic strife which could hamper their EU ambitions.

Serbia and Bosnia fought a war in the 1990s that left at least 100,000 people dead and millions homeless, and their relations are still tense.

Serbia refuses to recognize the independence of its former ethnic Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo — something enthusiastically supported by Albania — even if that could ultimately spell the end of Serbia’s EU dream.

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AP reporters Jovana Gec in Belgrade and Llazar Semini in Albania contributed.

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