Romania has refused to back Serbia's EU candidacy at a European foreign ministers' meeting and wants guarantees for ethnic Romanians living in Serbia. This may be part of a strategy, although it's not clear which one.
Romania's attempted blockade came fully unexpected. It was only last November that Romanian President Traian Basescu assured his Serbian counterpart Boris Tadic at a meeting in Belgrad that Romania would unconditionally support Serbia's accession to the European Union.
Even before that, the Romanian government had repeatedly signaled its support, independent of whether there was any progress in the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo. Not only that, Romania is one of five EU member states, together with Spain, Slovakia, Greece and Cyprus, that has refused to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state.
But the issue of ethnic Romanians living in Serbia has been an issue between the two countries for some time.
There are Romanians living in two parts of Serbia. The less problematical case is that of the the northern Vojvodina Province, where Romanian is an official language spoken in the local government, schools, churches and media. Other ethnic minorities in the area, such as Hungarians, Croats, Slovakians and Russians, have the same rights.
Ethnic Romanians are divided
More difficult is the case of the Romanians living in eastern Serbia's Timok valley, home of the ethnic Romanian "Vlachs." The language spoken in this community is Aromanian, an old Romanian dialect.
Bucharest is demanding that Vlachs be recognized as a Romanian minority. Serbia insists that recognition of this minority needs to be settled throughout the region, since there are Vlach communities not only in Serbia but also in Greece, Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.
The nearly 100,000 Vlachs living in the Timok valley are divided over allegiance. About 30,000 of them are demanding to be recognized as Romanians living in Serbia and, as such, to have the same rights as the Romanian minority in Vojvodina. To that end, they expect active support from their Romanian "homeland." The other Vlachs view themselves as an independent minority and have distanced themselves from their pro-Romanian compatriots.
So why has Bucharest now come to Brussels with the Vlach question? Observers in the Romanian capital have different opinions. Romania, some say, expected more concessions from Serbia on this issue after Bucharest chose not to recognize Kosovo as a state. Now it wants Belgrade to be put under pressure by the EU to make binding concessions.
Others point to a possible connection between the current position of Romania and the delay over its acceptance into the group of border-free European countries under the Schengen Agreement. A year ago, the delay - caused by strong opposition from Germany and France - prompted Bucharest to talk about blocking Croatia's entry into the EU.
Swap is likely
Now, Germany and France have spoken in favor of Romania joining the Schengen zone. Only the Netherlands remains opposed. Some observers believe Bucharest wants a deal: the Netherlands drops its opposition and Romania clears the way for Serbia.
Romania's unexpected move could also have domestic motives. President Basescu may have the opportunity to personally announce an end the blockade at the EU summit and position himself as an advocate for all Romanians at home and abroad. Parliamentary elections in the country will take place at the end of this year. Basescu's party, the liberal democratic PDL party, is currently trailing the social liberal opposition, according to the polls. A foreign policy success for the president might strengthen his party.
But another theory is also making the rounds in Bucharest: Germany, which has only agreed to Serbia's EU candidacy following difficult negotiations, may be trying to use a third party - Romania - to drag out the final decision.
Whichever version is true, people in Bucharest are convinced that Romania will revise its position and that Serbia will become an EU candidate in the course of this week.
Author: Robert Schwartz / jrb
Editor: Michael Lawton