The European Union must do all it can to support pro-EU forces in Serbia ahead of the parliamentary elections planned for May 11, EU foreign ministers agreed Saturday. ( dpa )
"Our concern is to give the maximum support to the partisans, not just of a future in Europe, but the Europeans, in the elections of May 11 and we will do everything for that," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said after an informal meeting with EU and Balkan counterparts in Slovenia.
"I think we all recognized that we have to make a move before the elections in Serbia. There is a political will in favour of movement, and that would be good, because we want pro-European forces in Serbia to win on May 11," Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn confirmed.
EU relations with Serbia have been explosive ever since Kosovo declared its independence on February 18 and a majority of EU member states recognized that independence.
Serb Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who attended Saturday's meeting, condemned both Kosovo's declaration and the widespread European recognition of it as "illegal and illegitimate" and vowed that Serbia would fight it "by all legal and diplomatic means."
Kosovo's move provoked outrage and rioting in Serbia. In the wake of the move, Serbia's government collapsed on March 8, with fresh elections called for May 11.
That vote is considered a showdown between pro-EU forces bent on moving closer to the continent's richest bloc, and nationalist groups who say that the only response to the Kosovo crisis is to reject the EU and perhaps turn to Russia.
"Everyone knows that if we get a government centred on the radicals in Serbia (the Serb economy) will take a beating, it will be more difficult for us in Kosovo, and it will increase strains in Bosnia," Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said.
Furthermore, "it will virtually ensure that (war-crimes suspect) Ratko Mladic will never be handed over ... So we have all sorts of reasons to hope that the pro-European and pro-democracy forces will get the upper hand in Serbia," Bildt said.
Nevertheless, analysts warn that the emotions raised by the Kosovo issue have strengthened the hand of the nationalists, giving them a potential edge in the run-up to the elections.
But Jeremic - himself one of Serbia's leading pro-European politicians - insisted that his country remained "committed to the path of European integration," and that the Kosovo issue lay "outside the context of the need for a speedy EU integration."
A similar diplomatic balancing act lay at the focus of Saturday's meeting, as EU ministers, keen to boost pro-EU sentiment in Serbia, looked for concessions which they could offer Belgrade without giving up demands that Serbia hand over wanted war-crimes suspects.
" Serbia has not made use of (a previous political deal), so we must now test whether a rapprochement could be made possible by offering something like scholarships and study opportunities in EU states," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.
"EU member states were virtually unanimous that now is the time to take another step forwards. This additional step on Serbia's way to the EU will be discussed in the coming days," Slovenia's Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, who hosted the meeting, said.
Even the Netherlands, the EU member which insists most strongly that Serbia hand over war-crimes suspects before a pre-accession deal can be signed, appeared to back that view, with Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen saying that his country was "ready to be creative."
And while the EU's special envoy to Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, warned ministers not to focus on Kosovo and Serbia to the exclusion of the rest of the Balkans, the diplomats insisted that Belgrade be handled with special care.
"The exceptional situation for Kosovo has to correspond to an exceptional attitude towards Serbia," Kouchner said to describe the attitude of a majority of EU member states.
"The major idea is that it's not your defeat, Serbian friends, it's the start of your necessary return to Europe It's clear that the Balkans are going to become a part of EU, and Serbia before all," - he said.