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story.lead_photo.caption Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) greets Albanian Prime Minister Edvin Rama during a joint news conference Sunday in Ohrid, North Macedonia.

OHRID, North Macedonia -- Leaders in the Western Balkans said Sunday that they are committed to working closely together to remove barriers on the free movement of goods and people between their countries. They also reiterated that their main goal is to become members of the European Union.

"There is no sustainable alternative for this goal," said a joint statement released after the meeting.

Prime Ministers Edvin Rama of Albania and Zoran Zaev of North Macedonia, along with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, met in the lakeside town of Ohrid to discuss concrete measures for establishing a free-trade zone to boost economic growth and foreign investment. It has been dubbed "little Schengen," after the EU's free-transit zone.

Bosnia and Montenegro are willing to join the zone, but Kosovo did not send a representative to the summit.

Relations among Western Balkan countries remain tense after the wars amid the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

"We discussed our dream to create a modern Balkans and a better place to live," Zaev said.

Vucic said that the trade initiative was an opportunity for countries to save more than $242 million by setting up joint checkpoints for customs and administrative services.

"We expect to drastically enhance the possibility for direct foreign investments," Vucic said, adding that this initiative would provide people in the region the opportunity to work and travel without administrative barriers.

For his part, Albania's Rama pledged to work for "Balkans without borders" and urged Kosovo, a country with a majority ethnic Albanian population and not recognized by Serbia, to join the initiative as soon as possible.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci refused to take part in the summit, saying it was "meaningless as long as Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina do not recognize Kosovo's independence."

The six western Balkan countries are at different stages in their quest to join the EU. While Montenegro and Serbia have already opened accession talks, the bids of Albania and North Macedonia to start the membership process were blocked last month by some EU members led by France.

Western Balkan leaders said they would meet again on Dec. 21 in Durres, Albania, to further discuss improving cooperation.

Information for this article was contributed by Konstantin Testorides and Llazar Semini of The Associated Press.

A Section on 11/11/2019

Print Headline: Western Balkan states call to remove barriers


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