The Latest: Pence urges better ties among Balkan nations

The Latest: Pence urges better ties among Balkan nations

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PODGORICA, Montenegro (AP) — The Latest on U.S. vice president's visit to Montenegro (all times local):

7:20 p.m.

Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama says stronger ties with the United States and among the Western Balkan countries themselves have been the main topic of talks with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and other regional leaders at a Balkan summit in Montenegro.

Rama on Wednesday wrote in his Facebook page that White House deputy "strongly stressed the U.S.'s interest to strengthen cooperation with the countries of the region and also the necessity to increase interaction between the U.S. and the countries of the region ... to successfully cope with the challenges of security, peace and prosperity in the region and in Europe."

Albania, a NATO member since 2009, is expecting to launch full membership negotiations with the European Union in the near future.


5 p.m.

Kosovo's president says U.S. Vice President Mike Pence is pledging to help eliminate the obstacles to Kosovo becoming a full NATO member.

President Hashim Thaci wrote on his Facebook page Wednesday that he had a "very friendly and also constructive meeting" with Pence on the sidelines of a U.S.-backed Balkan summit in Montenegro.

Thaci says he told Pence that Kosovo remains "without compromise (an ally) in fighting any form of extremism, radicalism and terrorism."

"American leadership is irreplaceable for our Euro-Atlantic aspiration," he said.

Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 from Serbia, is recognized by 114 countries. It is in the initial steps to becoming a NATO member and a member of the European Union.


4:25 p.m.

The office of Serbia's new prime minister says she met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of a U.S.-backed Balkan summit in Montenegro.

Ana Brnabic is staunchly conservative Serbia's first woman and first openly gay prime minister. Her election in June was hailed as a sign of the country's pro-EU policies despite a close relationship with traditional ally Russia.

A statement from Brnabic's office says she expressed hope at the meeting with Pence that the United States will continue to support Serbia's bid to join the European Union. The statement says the meeting also focused on Balkan stability and bilateral ties.

Serbia has remained under strong influence of Russia despite its proclaimed desire to join the EU. Belgrade has ruled out joining NATO.


4 p.m.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence says now is the time for progress in the volatile Balkans and is urging the region's leaders to make the most of it with America's support.

Pence spoke Wednesday in Montenegro at the opening of a U.S.-backed summit of top Balkan officials. He pledged Washington's commitment to the area that Russia also considers a zone of interest.

The summit in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, includes politicians from Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia and Slovenia. The region still is reeling from the wars that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Pence told the leaders, "You belong to a new generation of Balkan leaders and this is a historic moment for progress in Western Balkans."

He said: "I urge you with great respect to make the most of this moment."


3 p.m.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has called Russia an "unpredictable country" that wants to destabilize the Balkan region.

Speaking to Balkan leaders at a summit in Montenegro on Wednesday, Pence said "as you well know, Russia continues to seek to redraw international borders by force and here in the Western Balkans, Russia has worked to destabilize the region, undermining your democracies and divide you from each other and from the rest of Europe."

Pence says Moscow masterminded an attempted coup in Montenegro in October to prevent it from joining NATO. Russia has denied involvement. Montenegro joined NATO in June.

Pence says "Russia's intentions were laid bare when Moscow-backed agents sought to disrupt Montenegro's elections, attack your parliament and even attempt to assassinate your prime minister to dissuade the Montenegrin people from entering the NATO alliance."


1 p.m.

Montenegro's prime minister is in the limelight again.

After a scene that went viral on the internet when U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to have shoved Dusko Markovic at a NATO summit in Brussels in May during a photo op, the Montenegrin made a memorable slip of tongue in front of visiting U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Talking about a venue of a U.S.-backed Balkan summit in Montenegro on Wednesday, Markovic mixed up hotel Hilton with "hotel Clinton."

Flanked by Pence, Markovic says: "I expect an open and concrete exchange of opinions by the leaders of the American-Adriatic Charter at a special summit later during the day in hotel Clinton." He didn't correct himself.

The slip drew laughter among reporters, and a slight smile from Pence.


11:40 a.m.

Montenegro's prime minister says the small Balkan nation has "irrevocably" tied itself with the West and its values when it joined NATO in June.

Dusko Markovic said Wednesday the visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence confirms that NATO member states are treated equally regardless of their size.

Montenegro, formerly a traditional Russian ally in the Balkans, made a historic turn to the West by joining NATO.

Markovic says that "we have irrevocably tied our destiny to the values promoted and defended by this alliance."

He added that "today confirms that when it comes to ideals there are no big and small in the international community despite a country's size or population."

Markovic told Pence: "Thank you for confirming this truth by coming to Montenegro."


11:10 a.m.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence says the Western Balkans belong to the West amid strong Russian pressure to maintain influence in the still tense European region.

Tiny Montenegro, which joined NATO earlier this year despite Moscow's anger, is Pence's third stop on a European trip backing nations that feel threatened by Russian influence.

Pence says that "we truly believe the future of the Western Balkans is in the West. And we look forward to affirming the commitment of the United States to building relationships and strengthening ties between the European community, the Western Balkans and the United States of America."

Pence says "I bring greetings from President Donald Trump who sent me here as a visible sign of the alliance that we now enjoy through NATO."


10:55 a.m.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has told tiny Montenegro that the United States has no small allies and cherishes its alliance with the newest member state of NATO.

Pence on Wednesday described Montenegro's membership in NATO as a "historic achievement" for the Balkan country that traditionally was an ally of Russia in the turbulent region. He adds Montenegro's NATO accession is "a sign of the strength of this country ten years after independence."

The country of 620,000 people and an army of some 2,000 soldiers joined NATO in June.

Pence says the U.S. is committed to enhancing its relationship with Montenegro: "NATO is made up of large countries and small countries but the U.S. has no small allies, and we cherish our new alliance with Montenegro through NATO."


10:30 a.m.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has praised tiny Montenegro for standing up to Russian pressure when it joined NATO earlier this year.

Pence is the highest-ranking American official to visit the small Adriatic state in 100 years. Russia considers Montenegro its traditional Slavic ally.

Pence said during a formal dinner with Montenegro President Filip Vujanovic on Tuesday evening that "your courage, particularly in the face of Russian pressure, inspires the world and I commend you for that."

Pence said "I bring greetings from President Donald Trump. He sent me here as a tangible sign of our commitment to Montenegro as the newest member of NATO."

Russia is accused of masterminding an attempted coup in Montenegro in October to prevent it from joining NATO.

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