Kosovo the key quandary for a new Serbia govt: analysts
(BELGRADE) - As Serbia's top parties jockey for power after Sunday's elections, analysts warn that the nation's new leaders will face the tough task of resolving the key obstacle on its EU path -- relations with breakaway Kosovo.
The outgoing government led by President Boris Tadic succeeding in winning European Union candidate status for Serbia in March, in the latest step for Belgrade as it turns the page on the Balkans wars of the 1990s.
But Brussels has not yet set a date for membership talks to open as it wants Belgrade to fully engage in EU-sponsored negotiations with Pristina, whose ethnic Albanian leadership unilaterally proclaimed independence in 2008.
Kosovo has since been recognised by nearly 90 other countries, including the United States and most EU members, but Serbia continues to consider the breakaway territory its southern province.
"The new government will have a better starting point (with candidate status secured) but that does not mean its task will be easier," said political analyst Vladimir Todoric.
But the shape of the new government is still unknown after Sunday's presidential, parliamentary and local elections in Serbia, with Tadic and his nationalist rival Tomislav Nikolic facing a presidential run-off on May 20.
Although the conflict over the status of Kosovo was sidelined by economic issues in the election campaign, whoever emerges victorious will have to make it a priority in government policy.
"A dialogue and normalisation of relations with Kosovo, without recognising it, will be a priority for the new cabinet," Todoric said.
During Tadic's mandate, Kosovo and Serbia began EU-backed talks aimed at solving everyday problems that both Serbs and Albanians face in Kosovo, such as civil documentation and mobile phone coverage.
Kosovo's two-million population consists mainly of ethnic Albanians but includes a minority of 120,000 Serbs, about a third of whom live in the north on the border with Serbia in an area where the Pristina government holds no sway.
The rest of Kosovo's Serbs live in smaller enclaves dotted around the territory.
Several agreements have been reached since early 2011, including a regional cooperation accord that allows Pristina to take part in conferences concerning the Balkans. The deal was one of the main conditions placed on Serbia by Brussels to become an EU candidate.
But a new government in Serbia is not likely to be formed until July, and the EU-led talks are not expected to start again until September.
"It is absolutely necessary for the negotiations to continue and functional relations with Pristina to be established," Belgrade university professor Predrag Simic warned.
"This will be the key issue as a condition for Serbia to get a date to start membership talks," he added, warning that the new government "must be formed soon".
Tadic has vowed to continue the talks if elected, but many fear a cabinet led by Nikolic's nationalist SNS party would steer away from the moderate approach Belgrade has shown so far.
Nikolic has pledged to press on with Serbia's EU bid but warned that for him, Kosovo was a make-or-break issue in joining the 27-member bloc.
"If they say, you can join the EU, but Kosovo is not yours, (then) thanks a lot, goodbye," he said during the campaign.
However he stopped short of threatening to break off the talks, careful to preserve his new image as a moderate conservative nationalist.
While any new government will have to manoeuvre carefully on the Kosovo issue to secure EU membership, foreign policy analyst Ognjen Pribicevic said Serbia's main political players agree on its benefits.
"For the first time in Serbia's history most of the parties in the parliament have the same pledge towards the EU and this is very good for Serbia and regional stability in terms of European integration," he said.
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