BRUSSELS -- The European Union has given Serbia the green light to begin EU membership talks.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy announced the decision via Twitter during a summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
Belgrade is now set to begin accession negotiations no later than January, and possibly earlier.
Van Rompuy described the decision, which comes just days before Croatia becomes the EU's 28th member, as a significant step for the struggling countries of the former Yugoslavia.
"We are at a historic moment for the Balkans and for Europe as a whole. Not only are we welcoming Croatia as a new member state, we've also agreed to open accession negotiations with Serbia and taken a key step in our relations with Kosovo," Van Rompuy said.
"These last two decisions are an immediate result of the courageous agreement Belgrade and Pristina reached last April."
The normalization deal between Kosovo and Serbia granted limited autonomy to Kosovo Serbs while keeping law enforcement and the judiciary in the hands of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian central government.
As a reward for Pristina's cooperation, the EU on June 28 also approved a decision to launch talks with Kosovo on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step toward EU membership.
The final text of the agreement dropped a reference to "welcoming" the decision, at the request of the five EU members that do not recognize Kosovo's 2008 independence declaration.
Speaking at the summit, Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic offered his country's help to other EU hopefuls. Croatia joins the EU on July 1 after nearly eight years of negotiations.
"We will do everything and anything and beyond that to help and assist, not [tutor] our neighbors who are not members of the club yet," Milanovic said. "We think that the [EU accession] process should start as soon as possible, last reasonably long -- but not too long -- and have the whole process wrapped up."
Serbia now faces the daunting task of bringing its domestic legislation in line with EU standards. Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has said he hopes the process can be concluded in four to five years.
The decision in Brussels falls on a significant date in the Serbian calendar.
June 28 marks the Orthodox holiday of St. Vitus Day, as well the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the 14th-century defeat of Serbian forces by invading Ottoman Turks.
It is also the day that late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic delivered a provocative speech in 1989 seen by many as leading to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Twelve years later, also on June 28, Milosevic was extradited to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in The Hague.
Some 2,000 Serbs gathered in a field outside the Kosovo capital of Pristina to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje.
WATCH: Serbs gather outside Pristina to commemmorate the Battle of Kosovo Polje
RFE/RL's Balkans Service says there were no incidents during the commemorations as Kosovo police secured the area.
Pristina had called on Belgrade to encourage its citizens to refrain from hate speech while on Kosovo territory.
With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters