BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) -- Serbia's prime minister on Friday urged Parliament to support an agreement normalizing relations with breakaway Kosovo, telling lawmakers that rejection of the EU-brokered deal would turn the country into "Europe's North Korea."
Ivica Dacic said the agreement his government reached with Kosovo this month in Brussels was "the best Serbia could achieve at this moment" and crucial for the country's effort to join the European Union.
Serb nationalists and hardliners in Kosovo's divided north have opposed the agreement, which will give Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership authority over rebel Kosovo Serbs, who will be given wide-ranging autonomy. Several hundred extremists rallied Friday outside Parliament amid heavy police presence.
"Many of you are not happy," Dacic said in his speech, which was often interrupted by jeers from nationalist deputies and applause by the pro-government majority. "But somebody had to put an end to the past, poverty and endless defeats."
With all but one party in the 250-member assembly endorsing the deal, it was expected to be easily approved. The agreement was viewed as a potentially historic step in efforts to end years of tensions between the Balkan antagonists and put them both on a path to European Union membership.
"The agreement with Pristina has sent a strong message across whole Europe about Serbia's European attitude," EU's Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said during a visit to Belgrade on Friday. "Serbia moved beyond past conflicts and closer to the future within Europe."
Serbia has rejected Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence — which has been recognized by more than 90 countries including the U.S. and 22 of the EU's 27 members — but it must improve ties with the former province to advance its bid to join the EU.
Slobodan Samardzic, a lawmaker from nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, said during the parliamentary debate that "the agreement means our people must give up their state."
Top Serbian leaders have said a referendum on the deal is possible, counting on popular support to silence dissent and enable easier implementation on the ground in Kosovo.
Fule said that "whatever the way they chose it should not delay the process but in the end make sure that the implementation is sustainable." He also said "effective implementation" will be key for EU member states when they decide in June whether to open accession talks with Belgrade.
Dacic insisted in his speech that "this agreement does not mean the recognition of Kosovo's independence."
"We could have rejected it and become Europe's North Korea," he added. "But what would happen then?"
Serbia's warmongering policies during the 1990s turned the country into an international pariah, facing U.N. sanctions and isolation. Years of wars and crisis also severely impoverished the country's economy.
After the Kosovo agreement, the EU's executive Commission recommended opening membership negotiations with Belgrade, an important step on the EU path that Serbia hopes will pave the way for foreign investment and unblock access to the EU's pre-entry funds.
Serbia relinquished control of most of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO chased its troops out of the region in a three-month bombing campaign. The EU has insisted on ending the partition of Kosovo between the Albanian majority and the Serb-controlled north — about a fifth of the country.