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New serbian leader vows stronger eu ties { February 6 2008 }

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February 6, 2008
Rift Over Closer Ties to Europe Ignites Serbian Political Crisis

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of Serbia on Tuesday attacked plans by his coalition partners to sign an agreement on closer ties with the European Union, plunging the government into crisis and calling its future into doubt.

Mr. Kostunica said the political and economic agreement with the European Union, which President Boris Tadic wants the government to sign Thursday, would lure Serbia into rubber-stamping independence for Kosovo, a breakaway province.

Mr. Kostunica’s attack is a direct challenge to Mr. Tadic, who was re-elected Sunday after pledging to strengthen ties with the European Union regardless of Kosovo’s future. It underlined the deep rift in the government between those who want to lead Serbia toward closer links with Europe and those who argue that Serbia should try to hold on to Kosovo at all costs.

Mr. Kostunica, who had refused to back Mr. Tadic in the election, appeared to have hardened his stance partly because the European Union said Monday that it had approved plans to send a police and judicial mission to take over administration of Kosovo from the United Nations.

“The E.U.’s proposal to sign a political agreement with Serbia while at the same time sending a mission to break apart our state is a deception aimed at getting Serbia effectively to sign its agreement to Kosovo independence,” Mr. Kostunica said.

Political analysts said the Democratic Party led by Mr. Tadic and its other coalition partner, G17 Plus, had enough of a majority to overrule Mr. Kostunica and his allies and sign the agreement on closer ties. But the prime minister has moved to call a parliamentary session and still could torpedo the agreement by rallying a majority against it.

Kosovo, which Serbs regard as their spiritual home, has been under United Nations administration since 1999 after NATO intervened to halt Slobodan Milosevic’s repression of the province’s majority ethnic Albanians.

Milan Nikolic, director of the Center for Policy Studies, a Belgrade-based research group, said Mr. Kostunica, who helped lead the revolution that overthrew Mr. Milosevic in 2000, was determined not to go down in history as the leader who allowed Serbia to lose the province. “Kosovo is the main thing that is driving him,” Mr. Nikolic said.

Even if the coalition remains intact, Mr. Tadic’s efforts to bind Serbia to the European Union are limited because the presidency is a largely symbolic post and Mr. Kostunica remains a crucial driver of government policy.

Mr. Kostunica also has been emboldened by the strong showing of the nationalist Radical Party in Sunday’s elections. The party’s leader, Tomislav Nikolic, pressed the issue of Kosovo during the campaign. Mr. Kostunica has rallied the Radicals and collected enough signatures for an urgent Parliament session, which is expected to be a referendum on the country’s future.

Political analysts said that if Mr. Kostunica’s calls for the government not to sign the agreement were rebuffed, the prime minister could react by forcing the coalition government to dissolve and forming a new majority with the Radical Party, Serbia’s strongest single party, instead. Mr. Kostunica’s party, the Democratic Party of Serbia, and the Radical Party together have a majority in Parliament.

Serbia’s investment minister, Velimir Ilic, an ally of Mr. Kostunica, said Tuesday that if Mr. Tadic’s ministers went ahead with the European Union deal on Thursday, the cabinet could fall.

“Thursday is D-Day,” Mr. Ilic told reporters. “If they sign, anything can happen with the government. If someone wants to enter the E.U. at any price, and the E.U. wants to snatch 15 percent of our territory, I will not sit in that government.”

But Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic, a close ally of Mr. Tadic and the person charged with signing the European Union agreement on Thursday, said he would not back away from Serbia’s European future, and would go forward with or without Mr. Kostunica’s support.

An aide to Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, said the Serbian government’s crisis would not affect the province’s independence aspirations. “A fall of the government won’t stop independence,” he said. “I hope they know that.”

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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