BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia should work harder to improve practical ties with Kosovo, its former southern province, before it joins the European Union, the EU foreign affairs and security chief Catherine Ashton said today.
Serbia applied to join the 27-member bloc last December and hopes to receive approval to start membership talks quickly after long delays due to its failure to arrest war crimes fugitives.
But the EU also wants to see Belgrade improve ties with Kosovo, its former ethnic-Albanian dominated southern province, which declared independence in 2008 following the end of a bitter ethnic war in 1999.
"Different views on Kosovo should not be an obstacle for practical issues," Ashton told a forum in Belgrade.
Sixty-five countries, including Washington and its main EU allies, have recognized Pristina but Serbia, Russia, China, and a majority of UN member states remain opposed, effectively preventing Kosovo from joining the UN.
"Kosovo must be enabled...to participate in regional initiatives," Ashton said.
Last December the EU granted visa-free travel to Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians and unblocked an interim trade deal with Belgrade.
But the implementation of the key pre-membership Stabilization and Association Agreement depends on the arrest of fugitive Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic, who has been charged with genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal.
"We hope that the next report of the chief UN war crimes prosecutor Serge Brammertz will be a positive one," Ashton said.
She also welcomed an initiative by Serbian President Boris Tadic about the adoption of a parliamentary resolution that would condemn the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica masterminded by Mladic.
This was Ashton's first visit to the region. She said it showed European integration of former Yugoslav countries devastated by wars in the 1990s would be among her top priorities.
Earlier today, Ashton visited Bosnia, where she urged people to vote for pro-European politicians during the upcoming general elections in October.
Bosnia, divided into two autonomous and bickering Serb and Muslim-Croat regions, is lagging its neighbors in its attempts to join the European Union but the West believes progress can be made if new leaders with a European agenda are voted in.
Ashton was also scheduled to visit Kosovo's capital Pristina on February 19.