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Kosovo hurdle remains as Serbia advances down EU road

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(BELGRADE) - The granting of European Union candidacy status to Serbia follows a lengthy courtship by President Boris Tadic but Belgrade could still have a long wait before the relationship is consumated.

Thirteen years after European warplanes pounded the capital Belgrade as part of NATO's Kosovo campaign, EU ministers agreed in principle on Thursday to allow Serbia to join their club at an unspecified date.

The announcement is a vindication of Tadic's policy of mending fences with Western Europe which saw him to deliver up fugitives including Radovan Karadzic to face trial before international war crimes judges in The Hague.

A major obstacle to its ambitions was overcome last week when Belgrade agreed to allow Kosovo to sign international agreements like any other fully recognised nation, despite continuing to reject its independence proclamation.

But despite the breakthrough, observers say the Kosovo issue will continue to dog Serbia's EU aspirations as well as its domestic politics.

"It is clear that Belgrade cannot join the EU while it lugs around the Kosovo problem," Srdjan Bogosavljevic, a prominent Serbian pollster, told AFP.

"This has cost us a lot of time as the government coalitions have had a lot of trouble taking decisions on Kosovo."

Thursday's announcement comes almost a decade after the March 2003 assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian prime minister who had first spelled out the goal of joining the EU.

Djindjic came to office in the wake of the fall of the hardline Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic but resentment over the Kosovo campaign lingered.

As the political analyst Sasa Popov explained, Djindjic's assassination was regarded as "a great blow to Serbia's European ambitions" as his successor Vojislav Kostunica effectively "blocked the process".

The nationalist Kostunica government, which was in place from 2004 to 2008, showed no political will to arrest Bosnian Serb wartime leader Karadzic and his commander Ratko Mladic.

Since the ouster of Milosevic in October 2000, Serbia has been led by four different coalition governments who struggled to fulfil international demands to cooperate with the UN war crimes court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and to improve relations with Kosovo.

Each step towards the EU was marred with political infighting.

"The coalition which ousted Milosevic very quickly fell apart in a nationalist eurosceptic bloc and a pro-EU bloc which substantially slowed down" the approach to the EU, Popov said.

"We have missed many opportunities, and I think we will stay in the EU's waiting room until at least the end of this decade," he added.

For Tadic, Thursday's decision is considered a big boost ahead of elections this spring where nationalist parties threaten his pro-European coalition.

After coming to power in 2008, Tadic formed a coalition with Milosevic's Socialist Party which has since transformed itself into a pro-European party.

Under the new government, Serbia arrested Karadzic in Belgrade in July 2008 and three years later they nabbed Mladic and the last remaining ICTY fugitive, Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, after years on the run.

But while the arrests were widely welcomed, Belgrade was told it still needed to do more to improve its relations with Kosovo -- a territory that it still regards as an integral part of the Serbia.

Kosovo is considered the cradle of Serb civilisation and remains the seat of the very powerful orthodox church.

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