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Slovenia Seeking Greater Role in Western Balkans (feature)

Ljubljana, 19 March (STA) - The organisation of the Western Balkan summit and the recent adoption of guidelines for Slovenia's activities in the region, are part of Slovenia's new push to buttress its role in the region.

When the government was inaugurated almost a year and a half ago, Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar said strengthening Slovenia's role in the region would be a top priority.

He announced projects, regional initiatives and trust-building efforts, and named Vojko Volk special ministerial coordinator for the Western Balkans.

Last week the government adopted guidelines for Slovenia's activities in the region designed to provide tools to make it easier to tackle open issues in the region and to bolster economic activities.

As a former Yugoslav republic, Slovenia is seeking to regain its place as an expert on the region with which it shares a common history, human ties and infrastructure, the guidelines suggest.

The government will also appoint a national coordinator for the Western Balkans and an informal coordination committee which will produce action plans for Slovenia's activities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania.

There is a significant economic component to the plans, as the ultimate goal is to create a favourable environment for implementation of Slovenia's national interests and for Slovenian businesses.

The author of the guidelines, coordinator Vojko Volk, said at a lecture in Ljubljana in February that nine billion euros of Slovenian investments in the region, and trade worth six billion euros, were good reasons to invest in stability of the region.

Aside from direct ties with countries in the region, Slovenia is vying to host the seat of the future transport community between the EU and Western Balkans.

The region accounts for 17% of Slovenian exports, 67% of outgoing direct investments and 70% of bilateral development aid.

But during the financial and economic crisis trade declined steeply: in the first 11 months of 2009 trade with the region declined by nearly a quarter compared to a drop of 19% with the EU, according to Statistics Office data.

Efforts to regain a prominent role in the region also involved a series of conferences, many high-level visits and steady support for the NATO and EU aspirations of the countries.

A lot of energy was dedicated to visa liberalisation and Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia were granted visa-free travel to the eurozone at the end of last year.

Slovenia is seeking to achieve the same this year for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and it is pushing for Bosnia to be given a NATO membership action plan.

The conference at Brdo pri Kranju, scheduled for Saturday, would be the first time after 18 years that the leaders of all countries emerging from the break-up of Yugoslavia are seated at the same table.

As Minister Zbogar has said, the region, which drifted apart due to a series of wars in the 1990s, must forge ties again.

But is is unclear whether this will succeed, as Serbia has threatened to stay away if Kosovo participates as an independent country, in which case EU officials would probably also refrain from attending.

The Western Balkans had been a priority in the past, but this was not always reflected in actual policy; there were delays because of unresolved bilateral issues such as borders and succession.

This cost Slovenia valuable capital in the region. Rebuilding trust and regaining a prominent role in the region will require perseverance and a long-term outlook.

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