BRUSSELS • The European Union (EU) has warned that the western Balkans risk becoming a "chessboard" in a game between major powers, as Britain accused Russia of meddling in the region.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Ms Federica Mogherini, said there is "profound" concern about a region where dangerous historic tensions were also flaring up.
The 28 EU leaders are to discuss the situation in the western Balkans at a summit tomorrow amid growing concerns over instability and alleged Russian involvement.
"I have seen in the western Balkans these days, much more than ever before, a region exposed to different layers of challenges and tensions," Ms Mogherini said after EU foreign and defence ministers met in Brussels on Monday.
Asked about Russia's role in the region, she replied: "The Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played.
"So the concern is there... and it is profound," she said.
A GROWING CONCERN
I have seen in the western Balkans these days, much more than ever before, a region exposed to different layers of challenges and tensions. ''
EU'S FOREIGN POLICY CHIEF FEDERICA MOGHERINI, on how the nations there may be increasingly vulnerable to conflicts.
Ms Mogherini added that renewed ethnic and territorial tensions in a region that in the 1990s saw Europe's worst bloodshed since World War II in the former Yugoslavia were "extremely dangerous".
The EU diplomatic chief experienced the tensions herself last week when she faced pro-Russian chants as she addressed the Serbian Parliament during a visit to the region.
Earlier, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson had said that Russia must halt its "completely unacceptable" meddling in the EU's backyard. "Let us be very clear, Russia is up to all sorts of no good," he noted in Brussels.
"They are engaged in cyber warfare, engaged in undermining countries in the western Balkans - you have seen what happened in Montenegro - to say nothing of what has happened in eastern Ukraine."
A Montenegro prosecutor had said last month that "Russian state bodies" were involved in a coup attempt during October elections with the aim of stopping the Balkan country from joining Nato.
Other EU member states see Russia's hand in recent developments, especially in Serbia where Moscow backs its traditional ally in Belgrade in not recognising Kosovo's independence.
EU efforts to forge closer ties with the Balkan states have stalled, with Brussels seen as failing to deliver on promises of membership and economic progress.
Still, Ms Mogherini said she is struck by the enthusiasm of young people in the region for the EU as the key to solve their problems.
"I think this is also something healthy for the European Union, to bring this energy in. They can expect commitment, unity, determination, even perseverance on our side and the rest will come."