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First EU-Western Balkan Summit In 15 Years To Focus On Integration

European Council President Donald Tusk speaks during a media conference prior to an EU-Western Balkans summit at the National Palace of Culture in Sofia on May 16.

Leaders of the Western Balkans and European Union are meeting in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia for their first summit in 15 years.

The summit will not focus on bids by the region's six non-EU countries -- Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Albania -- to join the bloc, but rather will tackle their efforts toward closer integration with the bloc, European officials said.

"We want to demonstrate that we care about socioeconomic development in the region here and now. Investing in infrastructural and human connections with and within the Western Balkans is in the EU's best interest. And it will be the objective of our summit," European Council President Donald Tusk said at a meeting of EU leaders on May 16.

Tusk said the EU must impress upon Balkan leaders that the 28-member bloc remains their best "geostrategic choice."

"I am convinced that the EU is the only partner that cares genuinely about the stability of the entire region and a prosperous future for its peoples – as opposed to treating it as a geopolitical game of chess, in which the people are pawns," Tusk wrote in a letter to EU leaders, alluding to the EU's competition with Russia for influence in the region.

During the summit, the EU is expected to commit to investing in infrastructure to increase connectivity with the Western Balkans.

The discussions will be delicate, however, as some EU countries are wary of further expanding the bloc. Also, five EU countries do not recognize Kosovo, the former Serbian republic that declared independence in 2008.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy is staying away from the summit in protest because of his country's opposition to Kosovo's independence.

According to diplomats who spoke to RFE/RL, some of the five countries that do not recognize Kosovo were unhappy about calling the final statement of the summit a "declaration" and would prefer to call it the "Bulgarian Presidency conclusions," or even to produce a declaration endorsed only by the EU but not by the six Western Balkan countries.

The diplomats spoke to RFE/RL last month on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter on the record.

According to a draft statement seen by RFE/RL, the agreed compromise is that it would be called "the Sofia declaration" but with a statement in brackets, after the 16 points of the declaration, saying that "we note that our Western Balkans partners align themselves with the above points."

The six Western Balkan countries are not mentioned by name and are referred to as "partners," as supposed to "states" or "countries," in an apparent effort to ease concerns about the reference to Kosovo's status.

With reporting by Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AFP, and dpa