STOCKHOLM (Reuters) -- Serbia has applied for European Union membership in a drive to turn its back on the war, poverty and isolation of the 1990s, but its bid was likely to make little progress while Ratko Mladic remained at large.
Serbia's failure to arrest Mladic
, the Bosnian Serb ex-general indicted for genocide by the UN war crimes tribunal over the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo, has been a major barrier to Belgrade's EU ambitions.
President Boris Tadic submitted the Serbian application to Sweden, holder of the rotating EU presidency, a decade after the end of the Balkan wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt welcomed the application as a "historic step."
"It marks a new beginning for Serbia.... I am confident that Serbia can and will meet the conditions for membership," he told a news conference.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner welcomed the application but said in a statement issued in Paris it was essential that Belgrade continue to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Tadic said his country had undertaken major political and economic reforms and was already doing all it could to arrest Mladic and another fugitive wanted by the tribunal.
"We will continue our efforts to arrest all those who were indicted for war crimes. At the end of the day you can be sure that we are doing everything we can to arrest them," he said.Process Could Take Years
Analysts said the membership application would have little impact on the Serbian financial market, which had already priced it in, and it could take Serbia years to become an EU member.
The application followed signs of a slight EU thaw toward the biggest ex-Yugoslav republic, the target of United Nations sanctions in the 1990s and NATO bombing in 1999 to halt its counterinsurgency war in 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.
But ratification of Serbia's Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the bloc is on hold, at the insistence of The Netherlands, until Mladic has been extradited to the Hague tribunal.
Jasmina Loncar, a spokeswoman for the Belgrade-based Kontiki Travel tour operator, said people were "scrambling for low-cost round trips" after the abolition of visas for EU countries.
Tadic himself said Serbia could still join the bloc in 2014, only two years after Croatia, which started talks in 2005, but acknowledged it was an ambitious goal.
"I am not saying that is going to be for sure, but if we have that goal in our minds, we can achieve that," he said.
Of the former Yugoslav republics, only the westernmost, Slovenia, joined the European Union 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.