BELGRADE -- Serbia will decide this week whether to return its diplomats to European Union countries, as it tries to improve ties with the bloc and win candidate status by the end of 2008, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic has said.
The ambassadors were pulled from more than 40 countries, including the United States, the majority of EU and NATO members, and some Asian and Middle Eastern states, which recognized Kosovo's independence earlier this year.
"Following talks in Paris, Moscow, and New York and consultations with President Boris Tadic, the Foreign Ministry has decided to ask the government at its next session to ... allow the return of ambassadors to EU states and the normalization of ties," Jeremic was quoted by the Beta news agency as saying.
The plan, which is backed by Russia, would not mean giving up the fight to keep Kosovo part of Serbia, Jeremic said, responding to hard-liners' accusations that the decision would amount to capitulation.
Jeremic said ambassadors to non-EU countries who were removed over Kosovo will remain in Belgrade but Serbia could make the pragmatic decision to overlook the recognition of Kosovo by EU countries in favor of closer ties.
Normalizing ties with the EU is critical to Serbia's efforts to win EU candidate status by the end of the year and also have visa requirements removed for its citizens who want to travel to the bloc, said Jeremic, a liberal who had served as foreign minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.
Kostunica's 10-month-old coalition collapsed in March, with Kostunica blaming deep differences with pro-Western liberals over EU membership and Kosovo. 'Soft Approach'
Milan Ivanovic, the leader of the Serbs in northern Kosovo, denounced returning the diplomats, calling it "a soft approach to recognizing independent Kosovo."
Slobodan Samardzic, former minister for Kosovo and a close Kostunica's ally, called it "capitulation."
Behind it all is the capitulation of Serbia, and in the absence of defending Kosovo, even Russia itself has given up on the firm defense of Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"Behind it all is the capitulation of Serbia, and in the absence of defending Kosovo, even Russia itself has given up on the firm defense of Serbia's sovereignty and territorial integrity," he told Beta news agency.
Jeremic said Serbia could use closer ties to influence EU actions in Kosovo.
"Talks on the future make-up of the international civilian presence in the southern Serbian province under the auspices of the UN will start next week," Jeremic said, adding that he would formally invite new UNMIK chief in Kosovo, Italian diplomat Lamberto Zanier, to come to Belgrade for talks.
Jeremic said Serbia did not change its mind and still wanted any international presence in Kosovo to be in line with the 1244 Resolution and confirmed by the Security Council.
"We respect the EU readiness to assume a very important role in the civilian presence in Kosovo but that cannot happen without Serbia's consent or without the Security Council's approval," Jeremic said.
Jeremic is a member of a pro-Western bloc which formed the new ruling coalition this month with the Socialists of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic.
The leader of the Socialists, Ivica Dacic, said his party wanted Serbia to open up, but there had to be a clear plan.
Serbia's closer ties with the European Union still hang on its full cooperation with The Hague tribunal, which means the arrest and handover of the remaining fugitive war crime indictees wanted by the United Nations' court.