- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 12, 2011

BRUSSELS Serbia received European Union candidate status Wednesday without a date to begin formal accession talks until the country and neighboring Kosovo improve relations, the EU’s executive commission said Wednesday.

The move is bittersweet for Serbia because it had expected to get the date for the start of the negotiations after the arrest earlier this year of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and his extradition to the international war crimes court.

“We recommend that accession negotiations be opened as soon as Serbia achieves further progress in the one key priority the negotiations with Kosovo,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said.

Kosovo, a former southern province of Serbia that came under international control after a 1999 war in which NATO forces ejected Serbian troops, declared independence in 2008.

Serbia refuses to recognize it because it considers Kosovo the cradle of its statehood and religion.

Kosovo welcomed Wednesday’s announcement, saying it undermines Serbia’s two-pronged policy of seeking EU membership while keeping its claim over Kosovo alive.

“It’s natural and logical,” Kosovo’s European Integration Minister Vlora Citaku told the Associated Press by phone. “There cannot be two Serbias: one European toward Brussels and one anti-European, toward Kosovo.”

The U.S. and most EU nations recognized Kosovo’s independence, but five of the EU’s 27 members - Cyprus, Greece, Spain, Slovakia and Romania — have refused to do so.

The Council of Ministers, the EU’s decision-making body, is expected to endorse the commission’s recommendations in December.

For much of the past decade, Mladic’s arrest and delivery to the U.N. war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, was the key stumbling block for Serbia’s EU aspirations.

Mladic was indicted for genocide following the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, during which nearly 100,000 people died.

The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia’s candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish “good-neighborly relations” with the former province.

Serbia has vowed never to accept Kosovo’s secession.

Still, the two sides have been holding regular EU-mediated talks on practical issues designed to normalize ties such as border regulations and recognition of each others’ official documents.

Ms. Citaku said Kosovar authorities are willing to continue the talks.

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