By Maja Zuvela
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - The EU needs to integrate the Western Balkans quickly to safeguard its own future as well as protect the buffer region from Russian and Chinese influence, Montenegro's president Milo Djukanovic said on Wednesday.
Pro-European Union Djukanovic is his country's longest serving politician. He led it into NATO in 2017 and is steering its EU membership bid in the face of fierce Russian opposition.
Moscow, through politics, and Beijing, via loans, aim to "prevent NATO and EU expansion in the Balkans," Djukanovic told Reuters in an interview.
That meant the region needed to be "the zone of the European Union's responsibility and its strategic interest".
"Unless the EU realises that, I am afraid its own future might be in jeopardy," he said, speaking a day before verdicts are due in the trial of alleged participants in a 2016 coup plot against him.
Out of six Western Balkans' EU aspirants, the tiny Adriatic state and neighbouring Serbia are next in line to join, though neither is likely to become an EU state in the foreseeable future.
They been told they must root out organised crime, corruption and nepotism and reduce red tape first, and the political elite in both countries is deeply divided between pro-EU and pro-Russia camps.
Both governments have this year faced a wave of protests over alleged corruption, cronyism and abuse of office.
Meanwhile the EU is cutting funding to the Western Balkan countries along with the World Bank and other western lenders, leaving China to fill the gap.
NATIONALISM 'DEFEATED BUT NOT BURIED'
"Third parties, such as Russia and China, are making gains due to a lack of a concrete EU activity in the region," he said, citing enlargement fatigue and internal political tensions as factors in the latter's shift towards a more hands-off approach.
A Chinese loan for the first phase of a new highway link with Serbia has sent Montenegro's debt soaring and forced its government to raise taxes and partially freeze public sector wages to get its finances in order.
"Why don't the European financial institutions offer the same conditions," said Djukanovic, defending the deal.
He said that reforms he was trying to pursue - including structural ones to maintain strong economic growth - had led to protests, but said foreign powers had also played their part.
The 2016 election day assassination plot that Djukanovic survived was a designed to bring a pro-Russian party to power.
"Divided societies are the remnants of the wars of the 1990s. The politics of nationalism has been defeated but not buried and some of these people are trying to revive it and cannot accept the fact that our place is in the EU," he said.
(Reporting by Maja Zuvela; editing by John Stonestreet)