DUBROVNIK, Croatia, May 6 (Reuters) Vice-President Dick Cheney today pledged strong U S support for Croatia's bid to join NATO and the European Union, following the example of other ex-communist states in transition to democracy.
Cheney made the promise to reformist Prime Minister Ivo Sanader on the eve of a meeting with leaders of Croatia, Macedonia and Albania, as he toured former East bloc countries that have increasingly turned to the West since the Cold War.
He caused diplomatic waves on Thursday with a speech to Baltic and Black Sea heads of state in Vilnius where he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of backsliding on democracy and using energy reserves to bully Moscow's neighbours.
Standing on a restaurant patio against the backdrop of the Adriatic and a 16th century fortress, Sanader said Croatia was doing its utmost to prepare for NATO and EU entry.
''We are strongly supportive of Croatia becoming a full member of the trans-Atlantic community in terms of working with NATO and the EU,'' Cheney told his host.
Croatia opened EU accession talks in October, hoping to join around 2009. It is also further along than its Adriatic Charter partners, Macedonia and Albania, in aspirations to NATO. All three missed NATO's eastward expansion in 2004.
A key obstacle for Croatia's membership was removed in December with the arrest in Spain of ex-general Ante Gotovina, who had eluded a U N war crimes indictment since 2001.
Cheney flew to the Balkans on Saturday after a closed-door meeting in Kazakhstan with opponents of the country's autocratic president, Nursultan Nazarbayev.
The vice-president assured them the United States ''would continue its support for political and economic reform'' in the ex-Soviet Central Asian state, a U S official said.
Washington has nudged Nazarbayev to broaden freedoms while taking pains not to antagonise him. He has ruled since 1989 but has never won an election judged fair by international monitors.
Opponents say the United States is putting oil and military interests ahead of democracy.
today's meeting was marred by the government's decision to bar one of the invited guests from the Kazakh capital, Astana. U S ambassador John Ordway was being dispatched to meet the man.
Illustrating the U S view of democratic trends in Russia compared with Kazakhstan, a briefer drew an arrow on a piece of paper. He pointed the arrow up for Nazarbayev's government. For Russia under Putin, he turned it toward the floor.
Cheney had been scheduled to return to Washington on Monday.
However, his press secretary, Lea Anne McBride, said he decided to leave tomorow because he and his wife Lynne ''just want...to sleep in their own beds''.
REUTERS VJ RN0128