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Slovenia heads EU as Balkan neighbors begin to stir

Serbs vote Sunday in polls in which Kosovo independence is a central issue. Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2008

Europe's candidate: Pro-European Union Serbian President Boris Tadic, center, faces off against nationalist challenger Tomislav Nikolic in polls on Sunday.

Damir Sagoij/Reuters

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Ljubljana, Slovenia

This tiny verdant patch of Europe has been a star pupil among new European Union states. Now, after three years of diligent study, Slovenia took over the EU presidency on Jan. 1, the first central European state entrusted with such a job.

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And, unexpectedly, the Alpine nation of 2 million is on the hot seat. In an irony of history, Slovenia, the first republic to break with Yugoslavia, is in charge as Kosovo tries to be the last entity to gain independence. That move may be imminent.

Kosovo is Europe's No. 1 security issue – especially as Serbs vote Sunday in polls pitting the pro-Europe incumbent president, Boris Tadic, against a hard-line nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, who has made keeping the ancient Serb heartland of Kosovo, a crossroads of cultures and power tangles, his main platform.

"Since this seems to be an election about the European future of Serbia, the election does matter," says Slovene Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel. "I really hope Serbia step ups and intensifies its drive toward the EU, whatever happens in the elections."

For Slovenia, escaping the rotating presidency of the former Yugoslavia and earning the EU presidency has proven a long trip in a short time. It is also sensitive and tricky, analysts say.

"Kosovo will be the defining issue of Slovenia's presidency," says a Western diplomat here. Slovenia is attempting to manage the demands of 27 states, while not angering Serbia, Kosovo, or other Balkan neighbors.

This week the EU foreign ministers voted not to give an easy path to Serbia for EU membership until Belgrade takes steps to hand over Gen. Ratko Mladic, accused of war crimes in Bosnia. But in a later deal, the EU offered Serbia perks such as freer trade and expedited visas that have not been allowed other EU candidates. In a five-hour Brussels meeting described as "extremely grueling," Slovenia came out strongly in favor of making Kosovo's status and Serbian EU membership separate issues.

"We want to exhaust every effort to help Serbia and Kosovo. We aren't putting all our eggs in one basket, either Kosovo or Serbia," Mr. Rupel says. "In the years we were together in Yugoslavia … Belgrade was a very competent administrative center. Serbia is capable of being in the family…. In a few years, everyone will be in Europe, this is my belief."

Rupel also spoke of possible delays on both Kosovo independence and the deployment of 1,800 EU police officers to Kosovo, but would not say more.