- 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.

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.

Not all Serbs are eager to leave the past behind them. Mr. Tadic’s pro-Western drive faces strong opposition from nationalists who would rather see Serbia in close alliance with Russia. Moscow strongly opposed the 1999 NATO airstrikes against Serbia and supports Belgrade in not recognizing Kosovo’s independence.

Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Serbia’s first pro-Western leader after Yugoslavia’s breakup, was assassinated in 2003 by Serb paramilitaries who fought the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and who feared he would hand them over to a U.N. war crimes tribunal.

Mr. Djindjic’s slaying marked the return of nationalists to power. Angered at the United States and most EU countries for their recognition of Kosovo’s independence, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica moved to abandon his predecessor’s strivings to join the EU and instead worked on even closer ties with Moscow.

Moscow has taken a special interest in Belgrade’s fortunes. Russia shares cultural, ethnic and religious roots with Slavic, Orthodox Christian Serbia. NATO’s bombing of Serbia over Kosovo became a symbol of the evaporation of Russian influence in the decade after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of its former Eastern European satellites.

The U.S., meanwhile, considers Serbia’s direction significant as a potential source of instability in a traditionally volatile region.

For Moscow, the U.S. focus on Belgrade is unnerving.

Analysts say the Kremlin was unhappy when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in October said Washington wanted Serbia to become the region’s “leader” and a EU member.

The perception in Russia is that “Belgrade is an ally of Moscow,” said Elena Guskova, an influential Balkan analyst in Moscow. “If Serbia joins the EU, the situation will change drastically.”

Mr. Tadic’s government itself was born of the political instability and violence of the 2008 embassy attacks.

Mr. Kostunica’s coalition government with Mr. Tadic’s Democratic Party collapsed only a few months later, triggering early elections. After decades of frustration with nationalists, Mr. Tadic’s pro-Western bloc won the vote on a promise to bring the impoverished nation closer to mainstream Europe.

But persistent economic hardship has tarnished Mr. Tadic.

Serbs are increasingly frustrated over a double-digit unemployment rate and an average monthly wage that hovers around $400 a month — the lowest in the Balkans.

“What is Tadic talking about?” said retiree Goran Zlatic, 68. “The European Union won’t accept us for at least another seven to 10 years. We can’t wait that long to start living better.”

Such sentiments are exploited by Mr. Kostunica, whom critics accused of tacitly approving the embassy assaults. Mr. Kostunica continues to stoke nationalist sentiments, saying the EU “wants to snatch Kosovo” away from Serbia.

“It’s time for Serbia to turn the page and abandon the policy that there is no alternative to [joining] the European Union,” he said last month.

Particularly controversial inside Serbia was Mr. Tadic’s apology last month for crimes committed by Serbs against civilians during Croatia’s independence war.

The comments were hailed by the West as a symbolic step toward reconciliation 19 years after the start of the war. But lawmaker Milos Aligrudic, of Mr. Kostunica’s party, said Mr. Tadic’s apology represented “another humiliation.”

Mr. Tadic’s offer to discuss Kosovo’s status with its ethnic Albanian leaders also stokes distrust — even if he insists that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo’s independence.

The nationalists also are bitter about Serbia’s efforts to capture Gen. Mladic and the decision to increase the bounty on his head from $1.4 million to $14 million.

A far-right group promised the same amount to those who reveal the names of potential “traitors” who eventually lead to Gen. Mladic’s arrest.