Serbia signs EU deal in bid to defeat nationalists

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The European Union and Serbia signed an agreement last night offering the country a first step on the road to full membership of the EU. The deal aims to avert a victory by Serbian ultra-nationalists in elections next month.

Serbia's deputy premier, Bozidar Djelic, signed the accord in Luxembourg, just days ahead of the 11 May parliamentary polls in which nationalist parties are expected to win. The Serbian Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic, said: "This is a great historical moment. This pact sets Serbia on the irreversible path towards EU membership."

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, described the signing as a "very important day" for Serbia and for Europe. "Let's keep together and work to make that day [of EU accession] as soon as possible," he added.

The Slovenian Foreign Minister, Dmitrij Rupel, whose country holds the EU presidency, said: "This is a great opportunity for Serbia. It's a strong signal to Serbia to join us, to come to the European Union."

The Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) offers sweeping aid and trade benefits to Belgrade and is in theory a first step on the road to EU membership. The signing is, however, a largely symbolic gesture because it will not come into force until key conditions set by the Dutch and Belgians, who objected to conferring rewards on the Serbs before they have fully co-operated with international war crimes prosecutors, are met.

The Netherlands insisted yesterday that ratification of the deal depends on Serbia's full co-operation in the hunt for war crime suspects. "We want proof that Belgrade is complying with our demand to deliver Radko Mladic and other fugitives to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague," said the Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen. "Until then, there will be no ratification."

Radko Mladic has been indicted for genocide over the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, but sources at the tribunal say little progress has been made towards his capture: "The tribunal's progress report was very negative last time and there are no signs it will improve any time soon," one source said.

Brussels also wants Serbia to step up efforts to bring the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to justice.

The signing of the SAA, which will make it easier for Serbian students and business people to travel to EU member states, has been branded "unconstitutional" by Serbia's nationalist Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica. He vowed to block President Tadic's "illegitimate signature" when parliament has to ratify the pact after the elections.

Mr Kostunica's DSS party and other nationalist groups have been bolstered in recent months bu Serbs' anger over Western support for Kosovo's declaration of independence. Serbs consider Kosovo to bethe country's historic heartland and have refused to recognise February's declaration.

The pro-Western Serbian President, Boris Tadic, lobbied hard for the deal on the basis that it would help pro-European Serbs defeat ultra-nationalists. But recent polls put the ultra-nationalist party in the lead.