Serb parliament embraces EU with early pact

BELGRADE (Reuters) – Serbia overwhelmingly backed a European Union pre-membership pact on Tuesday as well as an energy pact with Russia, in what the prime minister called a bid to build a bridge between the East and West.

The 250-seat parliament voted 140 to 28 for the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, the first step towards full EU membership. It then voted 214 to 22 for the energy deal with Russia, giving its gas export monopoly full control over Serbia’s oil and gas resources.

“Serbia has made a huge step today towards European integration and a better life,” Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said in a statement filmed by a local video news agency.

“We have also adopted the agreement with Russia as we wanted to demonstrate we can cooperate at the same time with the East and the West,” Cvetkovic said. “We would like Serbia to be a driving engine in the region and offer some kind of a bridge between the East and the West.”

The European Commission welcomed the news that parliament, where nationalists and Socialists still represent a strong force, backed the SAA. “The Commission encourages any measure by Serbia that brings Serbia closer to EU,” a spokeswoman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn told a news briefing.

Analysts said the vote meant Serbia had taken an irreversible path to the EU. It came amid a split in the nationalist Radical Party, previously the second strongest political force opposing EU membership. The formation by the party’s second in command of a new dissent group could weaken the Radicals’ influence.

The government of pro-Western forces and the Socialists of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic won wider support for the law by adding nationalist language on Kosovo, the former Serbian province whose independence is opposed by Belgrade.

Russia has backed Serbia on the Kosovo issue.

“It’s a big step to getting closer to Europe,” U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter told Reuters about the Tuesday vote. “Symbolically it is important because it is the issue that broke up the previous coalition.”

Closer ties with the EU, which had backed the independence of Kosovo, led to the fall of the government in March with nationalists seeking to annul the accord and freeze Serbia’s EU membership bid until the EU revokes recognition of Kosovo.

Serbia and the EU signed the SAA only days before a May 11 snap general election in the landlocked Balkan state.

WAR CRIMES REPORT CARD

The SAA, the first step on a long accession ladder, will be fully implemented only when EU officials are satisfied Serbia has fully cooperated with the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.

EU foreign ministers are due to study on September 15 whether to release the trade benefits of the SAA to Belgrade. The Netherlands is seeking a tough interpretation of the condition that Belgrade show it is cooperating fully with the tribunal.

Serge Brammertz, the U.N. war crimes prosecutor, arrives for a two-day visit to Belgrade on Wednesday to assess Serbia’s cooperation.

Officials in Belgrade expect a positive report after the July arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is now awaiting trial in the Hague. They have repeatedly pledged to find Karadzic’s wartime general Ratko Mladic.

Last week, the EU’s President Jose Manuel Barroso said Serbia could be granted EU candidate member status in 2009.

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