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Europe

Serbian Government Approves EU, Russia Deals Ahead of Polls

Serbia's government approved a pre-membership agreement with the European Union and an energy deal with Russia, ahead of the election showdown between nationalist and pro-European parties on Sunday.

A man on bicycle drives by a pre-election billboards showing Serbia's nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica,left, and pro-western President Boris Tadic with graffiti reading Tadic, Judas, in downtown Belgrade

Serbia's pro and anti-European parties face off in the parliamentary election Sunday

The EU's Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), signed last month by Serbia's divided caretaker government, was approved by pro-European parties without the backing of outgoing Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's nationalists, who left the cabinet session for the vote on Friday, May 9.

"The two basic pillars of Serbia's foreign policy are EU integration and solid and close relations with Russia, and these two agreements confirmed that," Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, of the pro-European camp, later told a press conference.

Kostunica said in a statement that his alliance chose to walk out for the vote on the EU accord because it was "anti-constitutional and against the state and national interests of Serbia."

The outgoing prime minister and other nationalists have vowed to block the EU deal, saying it gives back-door recognition to Kosovo's February declaration of independence from Serbia.

Kosovo has been recognized as a new nation by more than 40 countries, including the United States and all but a handful from the EU. Serbia and its ally Russia refuse to recognize Kosovo's independence, declared unilaterally by its Albanian-dominated parliament on Feb. 17.

The traumatic loss of the southern territory -- viewed by most Serbs as the cradle of their history, culture and Orthodox Christian religion -- has buoyed nationalists ahead of the elections.

Anti-Europeans hold narrow lead ahead of election

A man walks under the billboard showing Serbia's President Boris Tadic above posters showing ultra-nationalist presidential candidate Tomislav Nikolic

Tadic, left, faces a tough fight to keep his party in power

As a result, the Serbian Radical Party leads President Boris Tadic's alliance of pro-European parties by a narrow margin in surveys and is expected to form a nationalist government with Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS).

Polls show the gap between anti-European and pro-European parties has narrowed since the SAA was signed. But the nationalist bloc led by Kostunica and leader of main opposition Radical party, Tomislav Nikolic, could win the most seats in the parliament.

The cabinet session was held even though a campaign blackout entered force overnight, ahead of Sunday elections expected to give the ultra-nationalists their best shot at power since Slobodan Milosevic's ouster in 2000.

As it took place, more than 1,000 supporters of the pro-Western Liberal Democratic Party staged a noisy demonstration outside the government offices in Belgrade to protest the Russian deal.

Energy deal unanimously agreed by both sides

The Russian energy deal, signed in January, includes plans for a strategic gas pipeline through Serbia and the sale of 51 percent of state-owned oil monopoly NIS to Russian energy giant Gazprom. If adopted, it could eventually leave much of Serbia's energy sector in Russian hands.

Serbia's conservative prime minister Vojislav Kostunica

Kostunica's party and partners voted for the power deal

Despite leaving the cabinet session over the SAA, Kostunica's nationalists later returned to the meeting to vote on the energy deal with Russia, which was unanimously accepted by both camps.

Both the SAA and energy agreement require approval by parliament, where finding a governing majority after Sunday's voting could take weeks.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, representing the Presidency of the European Union, sent a message to Belgrade on Friday reiterating the EU's desire for Serbia to become a member and said that the EU was ready to discuss its accession regardless of which bloc wins Sunday elections.

EU assures Serbia that accession will remain an option

"The EU can't influence the result of elections, we only want Serbia to become a member of the EU as soon as possible," Rupel told a news conference. "If Serbian voters elect Nikolic, the Radical Party, we will talk with those who have been appointed to represent the Serbian people."

Olli Rehn, the EU's chief for enlargement

Rehn wants Serbians to stay on the path to the EU

In a separate statement, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn urged Serbians to vote for pro-European candidates saying their victory "would be better for Serbia and for Europe."

"Serbia faces a critical decision this weekend," Rehn said in an interview with Finnish national broadcaster YLE. "Support between these two groups, the pro-European democratic group and the more rear-mirror looking nationalistic group, is rather even. I hope Serbia would turn towards Europe because it would be better for Serbia and for Europe."

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