On eve of Serbia vote, E.U. pact means more aid
Serbia will sign a premembership deal with the E.U. today that could bolster trailing pro-Western parties and give it greater access to record funding for the Balkans.
If this small Balkan country had a soundtrack, it would be the music of hammer, drill, and saw.Skip to next paragraph
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A 25-house development for the downtrodden Roma minority is in the works in Bernane. The coastal highway between Budva and Bar is getting a facelift. Gleaming buildings are going up here in the capital. Bridge and sewer projects abound. Towns are building new schools.
"Everything is under construction," says Milija Bozovic, a Budva tour guide.
Footing the bill for much of this? The European Union. The EU is pouring record funds into the western Balkans: €710 million ($1.1 billion) budgeted in 2008 alone – a 16 percent increase over last year, according to EU figures.
The EU's official line is that the assistance reflects the progress Montenegro and its neighbors are making toward eventual membership in the bloc. But some analysts and diplomats say the aid is playing a more important role: to shore up EU loyalty in the region at a time when its largest country, Serbia, is at a critical crossroads in its relationship with Brussels.
Ahead of May 11 parliamentary elections, polls show Serbia's pro-Western coalition trailing the ultranationalist Radical Party by a slim margin.
In an effort to tip the balance in favor of the pro-Western parties, the EU has been pushing its members to offer a new pre-membership aid-and-trade pact to Serbia. On Tuesday, EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg agreed to sign the so-called Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia later in the day, though it will not be implemented immediately.
While more than two-thirds of Serbs support eventual membership in the bloc, Serbia's Radical Party is using Kosovo's independence, backed by much of the EU but opposed by most Serbs, to fuel opposition to the EU.
Serbia's government fell on March 8, largely over the Kosovo issue. Three weeks later, the EU presented a plan to accelerate the accession process for Balkan countries.
"The EU can set the road sign, but it is up to Serbia to decide the direction," says Krisztina Nagy, spokeswoman for EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, in an e-mail to the Monitor. "This is a crucial choice to make: Serbia can either turn to the European future or risk self-imposed isolation."
Serbia's neighbors are already embracing that future, and being rewarded for it.
Montenegro and Albania have signed SAAs with the EU, the first step toward eventual membership. Montenegrins reelected a pro-EU president earlier this month, and Bosnia says it intends to sign the SAA this year. Macedonia and Croatia are both officially EU candidates, with Croatia set to join as early as next year.
A Monitor analysis of EU aid to the western Balkans shows that assistance to Serbia's neighbors is budgeted to increase 10 percent from now until 2011, compared with 1.7 percent for Serbia, which receives around €200 million a year.