BELGRADE (Reuters) -- Serbia's parliament has overwhelmingly backed a European Union premembership pact that could one day lead to full EU membership.
After several days of debate, the parliament where nationalists and Socialists remain a major force voted 140 to 28 in favor of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA).
"This vote is really a decisive step, almost irreversible," said Vladimir Goati of Transparency International. "It takes Serbia back to where it geographically belongs."
"If 140 deputies voted for the SAA, then the bloc favoring Serbia's EU future has really grown stronger."
The vote came amid a split in the nationalist Radical Party, previously the second strongest political force opposing EU membership. The formation by the party's second in command of a new dissent group could weaken the Radicals' influence.
The government won wider support for the law by adding nationalist language on Kosovo, the former Serbian province whose independence is fiercely opposed by Belgrade.
The SAA law said its passage "does not jeopardize the territorial integrity" and that "it does not in any way refer to status of Kosovo, which is an integral part of Serbia according to the 1244 resolution."
Serbia and the EU signed the SAA only days before a May 11 snap general election in the landlocked Balkan state. The pact was meant as a sweetener to support pro-Western forces.
Closer ties with the EU, which had backed the independence of Kosovo, led to the fall of the government in March with nationalists seeking to annul the accord and freeze Serbia's EU membership bid until the EU revokes recognition of Kosovo.
War Crimes Report Card
The SAA, the first step on a long accession ladder, will be fully implemented only when EU officials are satisfied Serbia has fully cooperated with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Brammertz, the UN war crimes prosecutor, arrives for a two-day visit to Belgrade on September 10 to check the progress in Serbia's cooperation with the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
Officials in Belgrade expect a positive report after the July arrest of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is now awaiting trial in The Hague. They have repeatedly said they have stepped up the hunt for Karadzic's wartime general Ratko Mladic.
Last week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Serbia could be granted EU candidate member status in 2009.
In its September research note on Serbia, Commerzbank said a political turnaround in the country would boost investment.
"Serbian assets had traded for a long time with a significant political risk premium due to its recent history of instability," it said. "As a consequence of realpolitik, Serbia is gaining greater appeal for real...and portfolio investments."