BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — A senior European Union official on Wednesday urged Serbia, a candidate for EU membership that is also Russia's key ally in Europe, to keep up its bid to join the bloc.
"I came here with a clear message," European Council President Donald Tusk said, speaking in Serbian during a joint press conference with Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic.
"The European Union is and wants to remain the most reliable partner of Serbia and the Western Balkans," Tusk added.
Tusk visited Belgrade as part of his weeklong tour of Western Balkans to prepare for the May 17 summit in of EU and regional leaders.
Countries in the region — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, as well as Serbia — are aspiring to join the EU. Russia though is vying for influence, particularly in Serbia, a Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation with which it maintains strong historic links.
Tusk said the summit in Sofia, Bulgaria, will "confirm our readiness to work on the European perspective of the region," including boosting economic ties.
The 28 EU member states must agree unanimously for any country to become a member. The process of joining the EU has been a powerful driver of political and democratic reform in post-communist countries.
EU officials have told Serbia that in order to join it must resolve the dispute with Kosovo, a former Serbian province whose 2008 declaration of independence Belgrade does not accept.
Kosovo's statehood has been recognized by most EU members and the United States, but Serbia has relied on Moscow to back its claim on the territory.
Tusk said Kosovo is a "tough, emotionally charged" issue for Serbia, but that resolving it will "pay off in the end."
"The future of Serbia won't be decided in Moscow or Washington, Ankara or Brussels," said Tusk. "It will be decided by Belgrade."
He added "the EU is a place where nothing is imposed on anyone," and should be viewed as "a project with strategic dimension."
Serbia's Vucic said Belgrade wants to reach a compromise on Kosovo and solve the issue "so that our children don't have the same problem as we do today."
Tusk has also visited Albania and Montenegro and travels to Kosovo next.