By Ivana Sekularac
BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia’s president has compared European Union demands of the country in exchange for membership of the bloc to an ultimatum the Austro-Hungarian empire presented to Belgrade on the eve of World War One.
The remark, made to German journalists on Thursday and reported by the Serbian daily Blic on Friday, came after Belgrade accused Germany this week of trying to change the negotiating framework for Serbia’s accession to the EU by seeking more concessions on the country's former Kosovo province.
Germany has dismissed the accusations as “unfounded” and Western diplomats say little is being asked of Serbia that it has not already signed up to under an EU-brokered accord with Kosovo in 2013 that is slowly being implemented.
But the rhetoric is feeding an atmosphere of political crisis in Belgrade over Serbia’s EU bid, just as Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic considers whether to call a snap election to cement his grip on power.
Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO launched air strikes to drive out Serbian forces and halt the killing and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians during a two-year counter-insurgency war.
Kosovo has been recognized by more than 100 countries, including the major Western powers, but not by Serbia or its big-power ally Russia.
Conservative President Tomislav Nikolic, an ultra-nationalist during the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia two decades ago, summoned foreign ambassadors stationed in Belgrade on Friday to protest the possibility of Kosovo being accepted into UNESCO, the U.N. world heritage protector.
Some of Serbia’s most important religious sites are located in Kosovo, which many Serbs regard as the cradle of their identity and Orthodox Christian faith. Many have been damaged by ethnic Albanians since the 1999 war.
Nikolic told the ambassadors that making Kosovo a member of UNESCO would be like “letting the wolf guard the sheep”.
In remarks on Thursday reported in Blic, he criticized what he said were new demands that Serbia file reports to Kosovo’s government regarding funding for ethnic Serb-run bodies inside Kosovo.
He likened the situation to the eve of World War One after a Bosnian Serb shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Habsburg throne, in Sarajevo in 1914.
“The Austro-Hungarian empire, after the Sarajevo assassination, demanded that its police inspectors investigate the background of the killing in the same way that Serbia is asked today to file reports to Pristina regarding the policy and judiciary,” he was quoted as saying.
Serbia's presidency is a largely ceremonial position, but Nikolic is from the ranks of the ruling Progressive Party, now led by Vucic, and has sway over hardliners in the party.
On Thursday, Vucic held closed-door talks with Serbia’s Orthodox patriarch and then with Western ambassadors.
(Editing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Tom Heneghan)