(Updates with Danish call for signing of pact, paragraph 2-4)
By Ellie Tzortzi
BELGRADE, Jan 24 (Reuters) - Some European Union members want to put Serbia on the road to membership to win over Serbs ambivalent about the West, but analysts say an ill-timed gesture could backfire badly in Serbia and among EU voters.
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen took the lead on Thursday, saying "it would be a good idea" to sign a formal agreement "before the second round of the Serbian presidential election to demonstrate the positive EU attitude."
While Denmark and others in the 27-nation EU are keen to sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia before its presidential election run-off on Feb. 3, a few, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, are strongly opposed.
Analysts say the EU must be wary of charges it is meddling to help pro-Western President Boris Tadic defeat nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, just as Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province prepares to declare independence with the EU’s blessing.
They say that by agreeing now to the SAA pact, it would devalue its principles by dropping an insistence that Serbia first send war crimes suspects for trial at The Hague, and prove Serb nationalists right by putting politics over principle.
"If the EU was consistent in its objectives it wouldn’t be a problem," says Eva Gross of the Institute for European Studies.
"It has to be really careful as to the signal it is sending not only to Serbia but also to itself," she told Reuters.
The presidential vote will be close, but analysts doubt the chances of a Nikolic victory in any case. Both men oppose Kosovo’s independence but differ starkly in their readiness to meet EU conditions for advancing to membership.
Most EU members still favour giving Tadic a boost by signing the SAA, believing it will also ease Serb acceptance of the imminent loss of Kosovo — an assumption some analysts doubt.
The main fear is that Nikolic — leader of the Radicals, Serbia’s single strongest party — could turn Serbia towards Russia and stir up trouble when Kosovo breaks away.
But easing the rules right before the vote could appear to be part of a pattern whereby the EU starts or suspends talks with Serbia in response to its behaviour and political tribulations.
That could make the EU look like a paper tiger, says Robert Donia of the University of Michigan.
"The Radicals regularly exploit transient symbolic ‘affronts’ to Serbs, such as Kosovo’s impending independence or cooperation with the ICTY (Hague war crimes court).
"But their appeal rests more fundamentally on the premise that the West is morally decadent, politically opportunistic, and prone to capitulation when defied," Donia said.
"Signing the SAA would only validate those perceptions and add to the ultra-nationalists’ lustre."
Rob Boudewijn of the Hague-based Clingendael Institute said the EU public was also against cutting any more slack for candidates on political grounds.
It had already lost some faith in Brussels over the 2007 accession of Bulgaria and Romania, which joined despite a widespread impression that they had not met all conditions.
"The Eurobarometer shows further enlargement is not supported by the population and there are now more demands on current and prospective candidates," Boudewijn said.
"Wouldn’t the EU lose credibility if it signed the SAA with Serbia?"
Analyst Zeljko Trkanjec in neighbouring Croatia says kid-glove treatment of Serbia creates an "uncomfortable feeling" in the Balkans, where Serbia is seen as the instigator of the disastrous wars that followed the 1991 breakup of Yugoslavia.
"If the majority of Serbs want Nikolic for president, there is no reason why he should not be elected," Trkanjec said.
"It is high time we finally found out whether this Radical Party bogeyman can really lead the region back into chaos, which I doubt, or if the Radicals would soften when voted into power."
Even if the SAA is signed before the Feb 3 election run-off, it may not ensure a pro-Western result. Gross says the emotional pull of Kosovo could trump an EU pat-on-the-back.
Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority has been under United Nations rule since NATO drove out Serb forces in 1999 to halt atrocities during a counter-insurgency war. They plan to declare independence within months, despite Serbia’s bitter opposition.
"If Serbs vote for the Radicals it could be a vote against EU conditionality," Gross said. "It would show that EU membership as a ‘carrot’ has lost its appeal, it doesn’t have the power to change political processes." (Editing by Jon Boyle)