Tensions with Serbs raise fears over links with EU
Concerns are mounting that Serbia could break with the west because of tensions over unfulfilled obligations to the international community.
The country's lack of progress in arresting and transferring Gen Ratlo Mladic, an indicted war criminal, is a key stumbling block, but European Union diplomats also fear Russian backing for hardliners in Serbia who question the need – or the inevitability – of a "European future" for south-eastern Europe.
There was a "sense of urgency concerning Serbia" at an EU summit in Brussels last week that discussed ways of bolstering ties with Belgrade, according to one person who was present.
Foreign ministers in attendance warned that the EU needed to prevent Serbia from "falling into nationalism" and had to ensure that the country was not "lost."
"An important consideration is keeping Serbia in the right direction as a country, not driving away from the EU and towards extreme behaviour," said a UK official. But he emphasised that Belgrade also had to live up to its commitments.
Last month the EU stopped negotiations on a stabilisation and association agreement with Belgrade – widely seen as a step towards EU membership – over Serbia's failure to apprehend Mr Mladic.
Since then, Belgrade has seen Montenegro, formerly the junior partner in a federation with Serbia, win recognition as a sovereign state.
Serbia also faces losing its province of Kosovo this year, since the world's big powers intend to resolve the territory's "final status" and largely favour independence for the ethnic Albanian majority.
Against such a backdrop, Serbia's ultranationalist Radical party has gained strength, registering 40 per cent in a recent poll, amid disillusionment with the governing coalition of largely pro-EU "democratic forces".
But prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, a moderate nationalist, also received a shot in the arm last week in Moscow, where he met Vladimir Putin, Russia's president. Mr Kostunica came out of the meeting "extremely satisfied", said officials in his government.
At the EU foreign ministers' meeting at the summit, Olli Rehn, EU enlargement commissioner, urged deeper economic and trade links with Serbia while the association talks are in limbo.
The Commission also favours relaxing visa rules for Serbian nationals, although this may be scaled down to a scheme reducing red tape for Serbian students following opposition from countries such as France.
Mr Rehn has also proposed a plan to help Serbia co-operate with the United Nations tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, which has demanded Mr Mladic's transfer over crimes connected with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre.
Copyright 2006 Financial Times