US Vice President Joe Biden will visit Zagreb in late November to attend a summit of Southeast European leaders, signalling the United States' stronger involvement in dealing with regional problems and in bringing the region closer to the West, sources at the Office of the Croatian President said on Thursday.
On November 25 Biden will attend a meeting of the regional forum Brdo-Brijuni which brings together former Yugoslav countries and Albania. The US Vice-President is the highest US official to visit Croatia since Barack Obama took up office as President of the United States.
Also invited to the Zagreb conference are German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and European Council President Donald Tusk.
Sources at the Office of the President said that the November 25 conference was a strategic meeting aimed at bringing Croatia's neighbourhood closer to the West and bringing back the US on the regional scene after its crucial role in putting an end to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995.
"The United States is getting back to the negotiating table. Problems in the region have been going on for too long and we don't want an unstable neighbourhood," a source close to President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said.
"Being aware of the challenges facing Southeast Europe, Washington wants to help untie some of those Gordian knots," the source said.
The current refugee crisis in Europe has overshadowed other problems in Croatia's neighbourhood - internal conflicts in Montenegro over the country's accession to NATO, unresolved relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the Islamisation of traditionally secular Albanians in Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania.
Sources at the Office of the President say that a stable neighbourhood is crucial for Croatia's national security as only one incident could destroy its tourism, which accounts for 20% of GDP. They also believe that Croatia, where Muslims make up 2% of the population, could become a model for their successful integration in European societies.
After Southeast Europe has been out of the focus of US foreign policy for years, with visits by low-ranking US officials, Grabar-Kitarovic again wants to make the USA interested in the region where the interests of the EU, Russia and Turkey overlap. It is in our interest to move the borders of the West as far east as possible and for that we have the support of the USA, said one of President Grabar-Kitarovic's associates.
The Office of the President sees Biden's visit as a confirmation that Zagreb is Washington's chief partner in the southeast as well as in the northwest of Europe, namely the Baltic-Adriatic-Black Sea region.
That new foreign policy orientation, inaugurated by Grabar-Kitarovic, strengthens Croatia's position in the EU and enables it to help its neighbours on the path to the EU and NATO with "more weight", the sources at the Office of the President said.
"Our strategic interest is the Baltic-Adriatic axis, but we will not forget Southeast Europe, where we will play an important role. If you are not strong in the EU, you can't help the region," the source close to the president said.
The Brdo-Brijuni Process was launched by Slovenia and Croatia to promote, through reforms and integration with the EU, regional cooperation and settlement of outstanding issues, thus contributing to the stabilisation of Southeast Europe.
Former Croatian president Ivo Josipovic and his Slovenian counterpart Borut Pahor in 2013 proposed annual meetings of the presidents of Southeast European countries, with an honorary guest from a leading EU country in attendance. The dialogue in that format started in Zagreb on 1 July 2013, when Croatia joined the EU, and it continued in July that same year at Brdo Pri Kranju with a group meeting with French President Francois Hollande.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the guest of the 2014 summit in Dubrovnik and Austrian President Heinz Fischer attended the 2015 summit in the Montenegrin resort of Budva.
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