BELGRADE Serbia stepped back from holding a referendum on a landmark accord with its former Kosovo province on Tuesday, saying it would push on with the deal seen as central to its hopes of joining the European Union.
The accord outlines an end to the ethnic partition of majority-Albanian Kosovo five years after it seceded from Serbia, and opens the door to European Union membership talks with Belgrade this year.
But the deal, agreed on April 19, faces resistance from around 50,000 Serbs in a small pocket of northern Kosovo, a region bristling with weapons and deep animosity.
Serbia's government last week raised the possibility of holding a referendum on the agreement, in a risky bid to get Serbs behind the pact. If people had voted against it, the whole accord would have collapsed.
But Serbia's Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told journalists on Tuesday that the government and a delegation of north Kosovo Serbs had not been able to agree on the terms of a referendum, and said it no longer appeared to be an option.
Opinion polls suggest a majority of Serbian citizens would back the accord, but Dacic said he had no guarantee the Kosovo Serbs would abide by the final decision.
"That agreement must be implemented," Dacic told reporters. "Whether someone agrees with that, supports it or not, is not the issue."
Serbia needs to demonstrate progress on the ground before the 27-nation EU rules in late June whether to grant accession talks, a process expected to drive reform and lure much-needed investors to the Serbian economy.
Dacic said discussions with the north Kosovo Serbs would continue next week.
He said he hoped they would participate in implementation of the deal, which would see the north integrated into Kosovo's legal system for the first time since the former province broke away in a 1998-99 war.
But he cautioned that the government had "all mechanisms at its disposal" to make sure state institutions currently working under Serbian law, known as 'parallel institutions', would be transferred to the jurisdiction of Kosovo.
He raised the possibility of cutting off salary payments and sacking public sector employees in the north, but said the government did not want to take that step.
(Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Andrew Heavens)