January 27, 2008 / 11:29 PM / 11 years ago

EU to debate interim pact with Serbia

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU foreign ministers will debate on Monday whether to sign an interim trade agreement with Serbia — a move seen as boosting pro-European President Boris Tadic ahead of a February 3 presidential run-off.

Tadic faces a battle to defeat nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic in the run-off after the pro-Russian hardliner took a five-point lead in last Sunday’s first round.

Although the presidency has little power, EU leaders are keen to see Tadic win to bolster pro-European forces ahead of an expected declaration of independence by Serbia’s breakaway Kosovo province.

Many EU states would like to offer Serbia a full-blown pact setting it squarely on the path to EU membership and aimed at discouraging further rapprochement with its ally Russia, which has backed Belgrade’s campaign against independence for Kosovo.

But the Netherlands and Belgium have led opposition to the signature of a so-called Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) to demand the arrest of Ratko Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb general indicted on genocide charges.

“It is completely up in the air at the moment,” said one EU diplomat involved in preparing Monday’s meeting.

He said a draft statement simply encouraging Serbia to pursue steps towards the European Union — without making any promises — had also been prepared in case no agreement was reached.

Up to now, Brussels has insisted Belgrade must cooperate fully with the Hague war crimes tribunal, before it will sign the SAA pact, initialled last year.

Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen has said that means former Bosnian Serb military commander Mladic, charged with genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims, must be arrested and put on a plane to the Hague.

The leaders of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority, who make up 90 percent of the breakaway province’s 2 million people, say they are within weeks of declaring independence from Serbia.

The United States and major EU powers are expected to recognise the move despite opposition from Serbia and Russia.

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