Serbia has resolved some long standing differences with its former province of Kosovo, bringing it a crucial step closer to EU candidate status. A decision is expected this week.
The 9th round of EU-mediated negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo last week finally brought a breakthrough: in Brussels, the two sides resolved some long-standing differences and agreed to compromise.
The agreements allow Kosovo to represent itself in international conferences in its own right and as a full member under the name "Kosovo," without the addition "republic." Kosovo will also sign its own accords, a role previously ascribed to the UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The deal also spells out the details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their borders and border crossings, and enables the neighbors to negotiate the finance and location of border posts.
> Map Serbia & Kosovo
But the hard-won compromise doesn't mean Serbia recognizes Kosovo's independence. Serbia has merely agreed to let Pristina into meetings under the title "Kosovo*" - the asterisk refers to a footnote pointing out that the use of the name does not imply recognition, and referring to international rulings, including a 1999 UN Security Council Resolution that recognizes Kosovo as a part of Serbia.
Kosovo declared independence in February 2008. While 22 of the EU's 27 member states have recognized Kosovo's independence, Belgrade staunchly continues to view the former province as a part of Serbia.
''Both Kosovo and Europe'
President Boris Tadic welcomed the agreement that has moved Belgrade a significant step closer to its declared goal of European integration.
"My policy 'Both Europe and Kosovo' safeguards a European future for Serbia and protects our national interests. It shows that Serbia is a stabilizing factor in southeast Europe," Tadic said.
That hasn't always been the case. Serbia was long regarded in the rest of Europe as the country that played a major role in instigating the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s and periodically caused unrest and instability in the region afterwards. Belgrade's policies were anti-western and anti-European. The leadership evoked its close ties with Russia, conjured the "eternal brotherhood of the Serbian and Russian people" and sought protection in Moscow from "hostile" Brussels.
While almost all of Serbia's major political parties advocate closer ties with the EU, euroskepticism hasn't disappeared. Opinion polls show that about 49 percent of the population would vote against EU membership in a referendum.
The critics are headed by the leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and former premier Vojislav Kostunica, who says, "Europe is harmful to us."
According to Kostunica, Serbia is in danger, but the government's only concern is whether the EU will give the country candidate status. "This government is prepared to sacrifice Serbia and its national interests for candidate status, "he says.
Kostunica's alternative: "Serbia first " rather than a "headless move into the EU."
But even some supporters of an EU accession see the move as a stopgap rather than a perspective that fires the imagination. Ognjen Pribicevic, a former Serbian ambassador to Germany, is decidedly unenthusiastic: "If you have a look at our dull everyday lives and you recognize that Serbia can solve neither its economic nor its political problems on its own, it makes no sense to speak of a different Serbian future than a future in the EU."
Working in partnership
Apart from refusing to recognize Kosovo's independence, for years Belgrade barely cooperated with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague - one of the main stumbling blocks for a more rapid approach to the EU. A long drawn-out process ensued: Zoran Djindjics' government surrendered former president Slobodan Milosevic to the tribunal in 2001, but it was another ten years before the other two wanted top war criminals, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (2008) and former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic (2011) stood before the UN judges in The Hague.
The agreement on Kosovo appears to have been the last hurdle in Serbia's long march to the EU.
Just last December, the EU heads of state and government refused to grant Serbia candidate status: Germany, Austria and The Netherlands in particular had misgivings after clashes on the border between Serbs and NATO's peacekeeping troops in Kosovo.
Entering the home stretch
Serbiastands a much better chance today than in December.
EU officials will discuss new steps on Tuesday, and a final decision on Serbian accession could be taken at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said last week in Belgrade the government in Berlin recognizes the changes Serbia has made since December and urged the country not to cease its efforts: "You're entering the home stretch - you can reach your goal."
The French, Italian and Austrian Foreign Ministers have already advocated granting Serbia candidate status, but the decision must be unanimous.
Candidate status would give Serbia a perspective for European integration, said Nikola Jovanovic, a political scientist from Belgrade. If it is granted, it will be merely the beginning of a long, hard road.
"If the decision is postponed once again, Serbia would disappear from the European agenda for quite a while," he said.