Top European Union officials said on Monday they still hoped to reach agreement on key deals with Russia and Serbia, but that the issues remained "difficult" ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.
Many Serbs want to join the EU, but remain dismayed over Kosovo's independence
"Today I am optimistic" that EU foreign ministers will approve the start of talks on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Russia and the signature of a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana said.
Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic echoed that stance, saying that his country "hopes that these technical steps (i.e. signing the SAA) will be made sooner rather than later, to the benefit of the peoples of the Balkans and the EU."
On Tuesday, the foreign ministers of the EU's 27 member states are set to meet in Luxembourg, with both documents on the agenda.
Ministers are expected to continue a long-running debate over Serbia's SAA, a document which is widely seen as a precursor to full membership talks.
Divisions within the EU
Javier Solana (left) and Vuk Jeremic
Most EU members favour signing the SAA, which was initialled in November, before Serbia holds snap elections on May 11, as a way of boosting pro-EU forces in the country.
The Netherlands and Belgium, however, oppose such a move, saying that Serbia must first hand over the remaining war-crimes suspects to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.
Following talks with Jeremic, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, whose homeland currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said that "we're still looking for a solution that would satisfy both the Serbs and the Dutch and the Belgians and all of us, and as you can understand, this is difficult."
But Jeremic played down the question of whether a decision on the SAA could influence the knife-edge vote, saying that "Serbia is trying to look at this outside the context of the elections -- the continuation of the European integration process is what matters at this stage."
Serbia is already cooperating fully with ICTY and hopes to arrest the remaining fugitives very soon, he said.
No last-minute changes
Serbia has delivered many indicted war criminals, but not Karadzic (left) and Mladic
Ministers could agree to sign the SAA but not to implement it until the fugitives have been handed over, Rupel said. The SAA, however, can only be signed in the version in which it was initialled, making it impossible to add any such declaration to the text itself.
Officials in Brussels also hope that the ministers will agree to launch talks with Russia on the PCA, an agreement covering relations on fields ranging from education and culture to energy and trade.
Lithuania has so far opposed the opening of talks in protest at Russia's closure of oil to its only refinery, and Moscow's recent decision to open relations with the breakaway Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
"Lithuania is a distinguished member of the EU and a dear friend of the presidency so we're trying to find a language that would suit Lithuania," Rupel said. "On the other hand, we're all interested in moving the PCA on... I think we have to find a compromise there."
On Tuesday evening, representatives of the EU presidency -- currently held by Slovenia -- and the European Commission are set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
EU leaders are particularly keen to begin talks on the PCA now, as they hope that the recent election of Dmitry Medvedev as Russia's next president will allow for an improvement in the current troubled atmosphere between Europe and Russia.
Also on Tuesday, they are expected to call for the signature of an SAA with Bosnia-Herzegovina as soon as it has been translated into all 23 EU languages.