European Union governments have reached a preliminary agreement to open membership talks with Serbia.
The decision was made by EU ministers meeting on June 25 in Luxembourg.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said EU leaders were expected to approve a formal decision at a summit this week in Brussels.
"The [EU] ministers have recommended unanimously to the European Council to open accession negotiations [with Serbia] in line with [the European Commission's] recommendations of last April," Fuele said. "There is, of course, a huge expectation on the side of the commission that on Friday, June 28, the European Council, based on that recommendation, formally opens accession negotiations with Serbia."
Fuele said the talks would begin in January "at the very latest" and perhaps "as early as October."
He announced that EU ministers also recommended that negotiations should start on an association agreement for Kosovo. The decision came although five of the EU's 27 member states do not recognize Kosovo, whose majority ethnic Albanian leadership declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
"The ministers have agreed to open negotiations on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Kosovo," Fuele said. "The mandate for this negotiation has been set and will be formally adopted this Friday (June 28) at the same time as the European Council conclusions."
The Stabilization and Association Agreement is a step toward eventual EU membership and can carry economic benefits.
The decisions had been contingent on Belgrade and Pristina taking steps to normalize their relations. After lengthy negotiations mediated by the EU, Serbia -- which refuses to recognize Kosovo's independence -- and Kosovo signed a deal in April on improving ties.
The European Union has made it clear that both sides must implement the terms of the agreement before moving forward on the road to eventual EU membership.
With reporting by Reuters, AFP, and dpa