More EU aid likely for Serbia

LUXEMBOURG (AP) – European Union officials were hopeful yesterday they could get unanimous backing to offer Serbia a pre-membership agreement in an effort to persuade voters to back pro-Western parties in important May elections. Officials fear the election could be won by ultranationalists who would steer Serbia away from closer ties with the EU. The Netherlands and Belgium have signaled they could drop their objections to an aid and trade pact with Serbia at EU foreign ministers’ talks today. But Dutch diplomats said they still wanted to ensure that Serbia cooperates with a UN tribunal by handing over indicted war criminals. The agreement would be a step toward eventual Serbian membership in the European Union. Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU presidency, told reporters he talked with his Serb counterpart, Vuk Jeremic, yesterday to assure moderate Serb leaders the EU would help lure Serb voters away from ultranationalist parties. «We will try to find a solution… that would satisfy the Serbs, the Dutch and the Belgians,» Rupel said. The signing of the accord has been blocked for months by Belgium and the Netherlands. But the two countries are under heavy pressure to relent because of fears the ultranationalists will win Serbia’s May 11 parliamentary vote. The Dutch and Belgian governments had insisted that Serbia hand over former Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic and ex-political leader Radovan Karadzic to the UN court in the Netherlands before a pre-membership accord could be signed. But that condition might now be dropped, diplomats said. The two countries could still delay ratifying it. Mladic and Karadzic are being sought on genocide charges by the UN war crimes court in The Hague, Netherlands, for allegedly orchestrating the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica along with other atrocities of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war. The accord – which would offer Serbia increased aid, trade and technical expertise to prepare it for possible EU membership – had been offered for months. But it was put on hold following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February, which soured EU-Serbia ties. In the accord, the EU also would offer Serbs visa-free travel to the bloc for students and businesspeople. Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht told Belgian media on Sunday that the Netherlands and Belgium would soften their stance to help the pro-EU camp, led by Serb President Boris Tadic. Pro-European parties in Serbia have pleaded with the European Union to sign the accord, saying it would help them in the election. Serbia’s top leaders remain divided over the issue. Tadic says the deal should be signed «as soon as possible.» However, nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica warns that signing the deal would be an «act against the state and its constitution.» A poll last week showed that an ultranationalist party, which formerly ruled together with the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, has the lead going into election next month. The nationalists have been bolstered by widespread anger over Western support – including from many EU countries – for Kosovo’s independence. Disagreements over whether Serbia should move closer to the EU or defy nations that have recognized Kosovo led to the collapse of the Serbian government, forcing the May 11 vote. Kostunica has said that Serbia should only sign the deal with the EU if the bloc acknowledges that Kosovo remains part of Serbia. Tadic says Serbia must pursue its EU ties regardless of Kosovo. Also today, the EU ministers are expected to agree to offer a similar pact to Bosnia, after it adopted reforms of the country’s ethnically divided police forces. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn had made the reforms a prerequisite for Bosnia to move on to the next level of closer ties to the EU. Initially, the EU said merging the police forces was essential, but Bosnian Serbs held out for years against giving up their separate police force, fearing it might lead to the loss of their separate territory within Bosnia. The EU eventually gave up on its demand to merge the forces and instead called on them to be more effective, financed from a joint budget and free from the influence of politicians.

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