Serbia reform grant

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia and the European Union signed an agreement on Thursday giving Belgrade -1 billion ($1.48 billion) in grants over the next five years to help speed up reforms on the way to eventual EU membership. The agreement gives Serbia access to -1 billion of the -11.5 billion earmarked as pre-accession aid to EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans and to Turkey. «We are going toward Europe because it is our goal but also because it’s the way to improve our system and the life of our citizens,» Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic said after the signing. Serbia, impoverished and treated as a pariah state during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, emerged from isolation in 2000 when nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic was ousted. Since then, Serbia has received some -5.2 billion of aid and preferential credits from EU member states. The money was used, among other things, to repair infrastructure that was destroyed by NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, to improve the healthcare system and for pension reform. Belgrade initialed a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward membership, in October. It cannot sign the agreement until it has handed over remaining war crimes fugitives indicted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Djelic said there were no conditions on the agreement signed on Thursday. He said the money would be used to speed up reforms of the judiciary, the police and the education system, and to improve environmental protection.