- Associated Press - Sunday, December 5, 2010

BELGRADE, Serbia | Taboos are falling fast in Serbia.

It has opened talks with Kosovo, the cherished breakaway province Serbs consider the cradle of their culture. It has stepped up efforts to capture Ratko Mladic, the war crimes suspect whom many here idolize as a hero. It also has apologized for atrocities committed during Yugoslavia’s violent breakup.

The once fiercely nationalistic country suddenly is focused less on pride than on its deep economic problems — and that means turning away from traditional mentor Russia and building bridges with Europe and the United States.

The prize of membership in the European Union is at the root of the transformation: Serbia has come under a growing realization that the path to prosperity is through reforms that will allow it to join the Continent’s club of responsible Western democracies.

It was just a few years ago that Serbian nationalists, angered at Kosovo’s independence, attacked the U.S. and other Western embassies. Serbia’s leaders scoffed at the idea of joining the European Union and instead courted Russia, the country’s traditional ally.

Flags of the European Union were sewn in a Belgrade workshop in 2005 despite anti-Western violence by nationalists and Serbian leaders' pledge to shelve attempts to join the EU. Now, however, the country appears determined to shed its negative aura and focus on joining the Continent's club of responsible Western democracies. (Associated Press)
Flags of the European Union were sewn in a Belgrade workshop in ... more >

Now, under reformist President Boris Tadic, Serbia is striving hard to leave behind the stigma of being cast as the key fomenter of the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

It has reached out to the West in other ways as well. At a recent gay-pride parade, police protected marchers from rampaging thugs — a decision that until recently would have been unthinkable in this deeply homophobic country.

The shift is already bearing fruit.

The EU agreed last month to review in detail Serbia’s long-standing request to join the 27-nation bloc — even while conditioning entry to how serious the country is in pursuing Gen. Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb army commander charged with genocide by a U.N. war crimes tribunal. Gen. Mladic is accused of orchestrating the massacre at Srebrenica, the slaughter of about 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in Europe’s worst carnage since World War II.

Change was slow in coming — nearly two decades after the end of communist rule and Serbia’s central role in the bloodshed unleashed by the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Under the slogan of national pride, strongman Slobodan Milosevic stirred up losing wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, redrawing the map of Europe and leaving much of the region mired in ethnic distrust.

If Serbia continues on its path, it will follow in the footsteps of other former communist countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Today, all are members of the EU and NATO, and count themselves as U.S. allies.

The pro-Western Mr. Tadic has indicated that Serbia — surrounded by countries that are EU and NATO members, or aspire to that status — has no alternative but to join the Europe of common democratic values.

He says Serbia can prosper economically only if it joins the bloc.

“People in the European Union live better, they have a better economy, they have better implementation of laws and that’s why we have to go that way,” said Mr. Tadic, who began his second five-year term in 2008.

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