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Canada's bid for a United Nations Security Council seat got a boost from Croatia as Prime Minister Stephen Harper passed through the country's capital Friday, en route to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country is also competing for the coveted spot.


Saturday's meeting with Merkel will bring an end to Harper's European tour this week that also took him to Belgium and the Netherlands.


Ahead of his trip to Berlin, Harper met Friday evening with Croatian Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor, who threw her support behind Canada's campaign to get on the UN's most elite and powerful body. Canada is in a three-way race with Germany and Portugal for one of the two "western" spots out of 10 non-permanent positions on the council.


The Conservative government has been operating a campaign to promote Canada's candidacy leading up to the October vote.


The rotating seat up for grabs is a two-year term that would begin in January 2011.


Harper, who praised Croatia for the progress it has made in the nearly 20 years it has been an independent nation, said his visit was long overdue.


"I'm really delighted that this is the first visit of a Canadian prime minister to Croatia," Harper said at a news conference following his meeting with Kosor. "Croatia has proven to be a true ally of Canada in Afghanistan for example and also in our campaign for a seat at the UN Security Council."


Croatia is similarly seeking a place in an international organization — the European Union — and while he was not asked for his opinion on the pending acceptance, Harper went out of his way to express support for Croatia.


"Canada is obviously extremely supportive of the general policy of the government of Croatia to more fully integrate into the euro-Atlantic community," said Harper. "Notwithstanding the history of the Communist period, Croatia has really always been, not just today, but Croatia has always been at heart a western country."


Croatia is currently negotiating its entrance into the EU and is hopeful the process will be completed by 2011.


Harper's visit to the small eastern country of four million people is being viewed by some Canadian-Croats as highly symbolic.


Gordy Samija, a Montreal native of Croatian descent who is now working and raising his family in Zagreb, said Canada's support for Croatia is boosting its credibility on the world scene.


"As a Canadian-Croatian I'm very proud the prime minister is here today," said Samija. Wearing a Montreal Canadiens hockey jersey, Samija was at the picturesque St. Mark's Square to catch a glimpse of Harper as he was officially greeted by Kosor and brought into Government House where their meeting was held. Samija later got to meet Harper, a huge hockey fan who told reporters Friday he is cheering for the Montreal Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks because he wants the Stanley Cup brought back to Canadian soil.


Another young Canadian who decided to leave Canada for Zagreb, Mark Mocnaj, said Harper's visit, as well as a previous one by Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean "speaks volumes.


"It sends a clear message that Croatia is accepted in the world in the community of democracies," said Mocnaj, who also came to St. Mark's Square to see Harper arrive.


"It's nothing less than historic to have the prime minister visit."


Jean's visit last October came a few months after Canada lifted the visa requirement for Croatian citizens travelling to Canada, a decision that Croatia's prime minister said Friday was highly appreciated.


The two leaders signed an accord after their meeting to promote travel and youth employment in each other's countries. The agreement will allow for Canadians and Croatians aged 18 to 35 to travel and work in each other's countries for up to one year. Canada has similar agreements with 26 other countries.


Harper's meeting was one of a series this week with world leaders. In Brussels he met with leaders of the European Union, in the Netherlands, after attending a 65th anniversary of the country's liberation ceremony, he met with Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende and Saturday he meets with Merkel.


The meeting comes at the end of a tumultuous week of market activity and backlash against the financial bailout for Greece and the austerity measures its government has introduced. The bailout is particularly unpopular in Germany where a major regional election is being held Sunday.


(Courtesy of Canwest News Service)

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