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Balkan trade war brews over huge Croatian import fee rise

SARAJEVO, Aug 7 (Reuters) - The Balkans have become embroiled in a trade war over agricultural health checks after Croatia raised import fees on some farm products by around 220 percent, triggering countermeasures by Serbia and threats from others.

Last month European Union-member Croatia raised its fees for phytosanitary controls -- agricultural checks for pests and viruses -- on fruits and vegetables at its borders to 2,000 kuna ($319) from 90 kuna.

It cited compliance with EU standards and protection of its consumers.

But ministers from EU candidates Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, as well as from fellow EU aspirant Bosnia, said the move violated their respective pre-accession agreements with the bloc under which they were guaranteed equal access to markets.

"These measures are absolutely protectionist in an economic sense. They are populist in political sense and cannot be justified, They are (not) in the spirit of good neighbourly relations," Serbian Economy Minister Rasim Ljajic told reporters after meeting his Balkan counterparts in Sarajevo.

The ministers from the four countries called on Croatia to withdraw its decision and invited the European Commission to get involved to solve an issue they said violated the free trade principles.

They also asked for an urgent meeting with the Croatian agriculture minister. However, until the issue has been resolved, each country will take counter-measures it considered adequate to protect its own economic interests, they said.

ECONOMIC WAR IN SIGHT?

Ljajic said that Serbia has already stepped up phytosanitary controls on all organic produce from Croatia and will increase them further. This means that goods, including meat and dairy products, could be held up at borders from 15-30 days.

"Our goal is not to wage any kind of economic war but to protect our economic interests and the free flow of goods," he said.

Macedonia and Montenegro said they would file complaints to the World Trade Organization, of which they are members, and seek mechanisms through the body for compensation from Croatia, which raised import fees at a peak of the high season for export of fruits and vegetables from their countries.

Besides discriminating against importers on its own market, Croatia is also making exports to the EU more difficult and expensive because it is vital entry point for imports to the EU from the Balkans, the ministers said.

Commenting on the explanation from Croatia that their move was not aimed against the neighbours but against all non-EU members, Bosnia's Foreign Trade Minister Mirko Sarovic said:

"Croatia does not import raspberries from Trinidad and Tobago but from Serbia and Bosnia." He said that Bosnia was considering an "adequate response" but declined to elaborate.

Most countries in the region import more than they export to Croatia. Only Serbia operates a trade surplus with its neighbour, with exports in 2016 reaching 116 million euros ($137 million) versus imports worth 79 million euros.

Relations remain strained between the two former Yugoslav countries and bitter foes during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, despite improvements in investments, the flow of people and capital. ($1 = 6.2688 kuna) (Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)