By Marcin Grajewski
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Western Balkan countries face a long and bumpy road towards joining the European Union, with corruption, fluid politics, weak courts and opaque economic rules among major challenges, EU reports showed on Wednesday.
The executive European Commission recommended that the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, which came close to civil war four years ago, be declared a candidate for EU membership.
Its annual progress reports on other Balkan states confirmed that the EU would keep its door open to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro as long as they keep on reforming their political systems and economies.
The EU, which expanded into ex-communist eastern Europe last year, has long used the prospect of enlargement to encourage stability, free market reforms and respect for human rights.
"The accession process is a tool for enhancing security and stability in that region which has suffered so many wars and ethnic conflicts in the last decade," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a news conference.
Slovenia joined the EU in 2004, Croatia opened accession talks last month and Macedonia is next in line, although it is not expected to join before 2012 and the Commission proposed no date for membership negotiations in its recommendation.
But the majority of mini-states in the region, which was torn by three major wars during the 1990s, have not yet achieved even the first level of integration with the 25-nation EU, which is the Stabilisation and Association Agreement.
The EU executive said Albania, which suffered from decades of a particularly harsh brand of communism, was now ready to sign such an agreement, which offers trade privileges, financial aid and strong political ties.
PROGRESS IN ALBANIA, SERBIA
Rehn said Albania's general elections this year were "reasonably free and fair", adding he would travel to Tirana this week to assess the new government's reform drive.
The report on Serbia and Montenegro said the country should boost its cooperation with an international war crimes tribunal, overhaul its judicial system, fight corruption, and ensure democratic control over the military.
Belgrade started talks on an association agreement with the EU on October 10, five years after the overthrow of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial at the Hague-based tribunal on charges of genocide.
Rehn said talks on the agreement could be concluded within a year, but the report made it clear the country had much to do.
"As regards justice, freedom and security, no visible progress has taken place in areas such as visas, border control, asylum and migration," it said.
It urged Belgrade to do more to hunt the top two indicted Bosnian Serb war crimes suspects, former military commander Ratko Mladic and his political master, Radovan Karadzic.
The Commission also urged Serbia to help solve the problems of Kosovo, which remains a United Nations protectorate six years after NATO waged an air war to stop Serbian forces persecuting the ethnic Albanian majority.
The EU executive published a separate report on Kosovo for the first time, but Rehn dismissed suggestions the move had political significance for talks on the province's final status.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, which Rehn said would start talks on an association agreement this year, needs to thoroughly overhaul state institutions, cooperate more with the war crimes tribunal, fight corruption and launch many free market reforms.
"The country and its reforms suffer from complex government structures, fragmented policy-making and a lack resources and qualified staff," the report said.