PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — The European Union's foreign policy chief sought to encourage countries in the Western Balkans on Wednesday to press on with efforts to join the 28-nation bloc despite tensions threatening the region's stability.
Federica Mogherini, the European Commission's high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said at the start of a Balkan tour that that the still-volatile region's integration was in the EU's interest and that its door remains open.
"Balkans lies at the heart of Europe and no political boundaries will change that reality," Mogherini said in a speech to lawmakers in Montenegro.
She praised the progress small Montenegro has made in the accession process, declaring the Adriatic country of 620,000 people "the front-runner of the European integrations."
"The time for Montenegro to advance toward the EU is now," Mogherini said. "Montenegro can and will be part of the EU. This is not a distant dream."
Montenegro is expected to formally join the NATO military alliance later this year, despite strong opposition from Russia, a traditional ally. The country also has faced a political crisis at home with pro-Russian opposition parties boycotting meetings of parliament, including Mogherini's speech.
Montenegro has accused Russia of being involved in a failed nationalist coup in October to overthrow the pro-NATO government. The dispute illustrates tensions over Moscow's attempts to step up its historic influence in the Balkans amid the regional EU integration process.
Earlier Wednesday, Mogherini warned in an op-ed published in Montenegro's Pobjeda daily newspaper that stability in the Western Balkans remains fragile. A complex international environment — a slow economic recovery and a shifting balance of power — has put additional pressure on the region still recovering from the wars of the 1990s, she said.
Elsewhere in the region, tensions have mounted in relations between Serbia and its former war foes Bosnia and EU member Croatia. Serbia also has refused to recognize the Western-backed independence of its former province of Kosovo, while political instability threatens Macedonia to the south.
Mogherini said in the op-ed that "at times, we had the impression that peace itself could not be taken for granted."
She also is scheduled to visit Bosnia, Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo.