BELGRADE/STOCKHOLOM (Reuters) -- Serbia will formally apply for European Union membership today and take a major step in its efforts to turn its back on the war, poverty and international isolation of the 1990s.
President Boris Tadic will submit the application to Sweden, which holds the rotating EU Presidency, a decade after the end of the Balkans wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia and kept it away from mainstream Europe.
Although analysts said this was only the start of a long accession process that could take years, Serbian politicians were jubilant and the news dominated all local media.
"This is a turning point and a new phase, which will require deep and painful reforms but will eventually benefit our citizens," Tadic said.
The move came amid concrete signs that the EU was warming up to the biggest ex-Yugoslav republic, which had suffered United Nations sanctions in the 1990s and was bombed by NATO in 1999 to halt Belgrade's crackdown on the breakaway Kosovo province.
Earlier this month, the EU unblocked an interim trade deal with Serbia and lifted the visa requirements for Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro, allowing their citizens to travel freely to the 27-nation bloc.
Serbia's path to EU membership has been stalled because of its failure to arrest ex-Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who is sought for genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal.
Despite recent progress, the ratification of the EU's pre-membership Stabilization and Association Agreement is on hold because the Netherlands wants to see Mladic first extradited to The Hague tribunal.
Tadic, the leading reformist figure in the country of 7.5 million, acknowledged the application was only a start.
"It is a completely different matter whether we will get the candidate status before we complete our cooperation with The Hague tribunal," he said on December 21.
Of the former Yugoslav republics, only the westernmost Slovenia joined the EU in 2004. Croatia, which became a member of NATO this year, hopes to conclude its EU entry talks in 2010 and join the bloc in 2012.
Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro have already applied for membership but have yet to start talks.