BELGRADE, March 12 Europe has not given up on Serbia and wants to see Belgrade back on the path of late Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, senior EU officials said on Wednesday, the 5-year anniversary of the reformist leader's assassination.
The man who helped topple Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, then outraged nationalists by sending him to face war crimes charges in The Hague, died from a sniper's bullet on March 12, 2003, a crime blamed on a gang linked to Milosevic's secret police.
In an editorial in Belgrade daily Blic entitled "Djindjic, Serbia, Europe", Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recalled the "deeply felt convictions" of Djindjic, his love for Serbia and "his certainty that it had to speed up its path towards the European Union."
"Serbia is going through another difficult period. We know the shock Serbia feels at Kosovo's loss," they said, adding that Sweden and France backed the secession of the Albanian-majority province because "there was no other solution".
"We took the responsibility of recognising Kosovo's independence, convinced that this would help Serbia move forward," they wrote.
Kosovo's secession on Feb 17 caused sometime-violent protests against foreign embassies and businesses, and led Belgrade to recall ambassadors from countries that recognised Kosovo, including the United States and major EU countries.
It also brought down the government. Nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica accused his liberal coalition partners of abandoning Kosovo, by refusing to back his bid to freeze Serbia's ties to the EU unless it stopped backing the territory.
The upcoming election, likely on May 11, is billed as a referendum on a fundamental question: should Serbs go on working to join the European Union even though the bloc has recognised the secession of their cherished province.
Kostunica and the nationalist Radicals, Serbia's strongest party, say 'no'. Djindic's Democractic Party, now led by President Boris Tadic, say that moving away from the EU will only lead to isolation, like in the Milosevic years.
The race is expected to be very close, reflecting the struggle between Serbian pride, ambivalence about its role in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and the growing desire for a normal life with better living standards.
Kouchner and Bildt acknowledge the dilemmas, and the country's long-delayed and bumpy transition, writing "it is probably hard for our Serbian friends today to imagine that they will soon be European citizens."
"And yet in our view it is certain that Serbia will soon be a member of the EU, because there is no alternative," they wrote. "This is in tune with the flow of history."
(Reporting by Ellie Tzortzi; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)