April 12, 2017 / 5:13 PM / 2 years ago

Germany's Gabriel supports Serbia's EU bid, says protests 'part of democracy'

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Germany supports Serbia on its path to the European Union membership but the Balkan country must work on reforms and sort out ties with its former province Kosovo, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Wednesday .

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel takes part in an international conference on the future of Syria and the region, in Brussels, Belgium, April 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Speaking before a meeting with Serbian president-elect Aleksandar Vucic, Gabriel said: “You have a responsibility to continue reforms and to continue to develop better relations with Kosovo. That is an essential precondition for accession to the European Union.”

Gabriel said he could not give a precise date when Serbia could enter EU.

Earlier on Wednesday, Gabriel who will visit Kosovo on Thursday and Albania on Monday on his Balkan tour, urged Balkan states to overcome their divisions to integrate into the European Union.

Six countries in the Western Balkan region, which is still recovering from a decade of wars and economic turmoil in the 1990s, aim to join the European Union - Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.

Gabriel said Serbia, the biggest market, has “a good bit of work” to do to meet the requirements for EU membership, including improving transparency, governance and rule of law, and fighting corruption.

Those steps were also important for Serbia to be able to attract small- and medium-sized businesses, who needed stable conditions, he said.

He said it was good that daily protests by thousands of people after Vucic’s election on April 2 had been allowed to proceed without government intervention.

“If you want to get into the EU, you must know that demonstrations and protests against democratically elected governments and president are possible, permitted and within the EU, quite common,” Gabriel said.

Vucic, who won a presidential election on April 2 in a landslide, said: “As far as we are concerned we are on the European Union path and whether it will happen or not it does not only depend on us.”

Gabriel said he remained concerned about developments elsewhere in the region, where “demons of the past” were arising once again.

Tensions have flared in recent months between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as between three ethnics groups in Bosnia, as nationalist sentiment grows across the region.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal

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