BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union leaders are expected to formally grant Serbia the status of a candidate for membership in the bloc during their summit Thursday in recognition of its government's efforts to round up war crimes suspects and normalize relations with Kosovo, its former province.
The move would represent a remarkable turnaround for Serbia, which spent much of the 1990s ostracized and isolated from the EU after its then-strongman Slobodan Milosevic started the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. When Milosevic agreed to a U.S.-brokered agreement to end the war in Bosnia in 1995, about 60,000 NATO troops — including about 30,000 Americans — were deployed to the nation to enforce the accord.
In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia to prevent a crackdown on ethnic Albanians — in the first military campaign in the alliance's history.
Serbia had been widely expected to get EU candidacy in December after it captured two top war crimes suspects, but was disappointed when Germany delayed the move, saying it wanted to see more progress in talks with Kosovo.
EU foreign ministers recommended earlier this week that Serbia be granted the coveted status after saying it had fulfilled conditions set by the 27-nation bloc. The bloc's leaders routinely affirm such ministerial decisions.
The only holdout during the ministerial meeting was Romania, whose foreign minister demanded that Belgrade do more for its Romanian minority. But Romanian President Traian Basescu said Thursday that the issue had been resolved.
"Serbia is already in," he told journalists as he arrived for the summit.
Candidate status is an initial step on the road to EU membership. Belgrade will still probably have to wait for about a year to open actual accession negotiations, which can then drag on for up to a decade.
Still, the EU move would be politically important for Serbia's pro-EU president, Boris Tadic, whose party faces elections soon.
The European Parliament's foreign affairs committee said Thursday accession negotiations with Serbia should start soon.
Kosovo, which many Serbs consider the cradle of their statehood and religion, came under international control after the 1999 war during which NATO forces ejected Milosevic's troops. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia refuses to recognize it.
The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia's candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish "good-neighborly relations" with its former province.
Over the past year, the two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated talks dealing mostly with practical matters such as recognizing each other's official documents. A key agreement reached last month allows Kosovo to represent itself in international conferences and spell out the technical details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their joint borders and border crossings.
Kosovo has been recognized by nearly 90 nations, including 22 of the EU's 27 member states. But Serbia has blocked its membership in the U.N., where many countries also reject unilateral declarations of independence.
Slobodan Lekic can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/slekich