When Serbia arrested war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic earlier this year, it seemed to have cleared the key obstacle to its journey to the European Union.
But on the eve of a key EU progress report, the country's dreams of joining the wealthy bloc seem as distant as ever.
Riots by Serbs in Kosovo, including clashes with NATO-led peacekeepers, and the banning of a gay pride march in Belgrade have put the EU bid in jeopardy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is demanding that Serbia abandon its claim over Kosovo, a former province that declared independence in 2008, before formally becoming an EU candidate.
In Belgrade, the government fumes that the EU is simply raising more obstacles now that Serbia has made the politically difficult move of handing over Bosnian Serb warlord Mladic this year to the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.
Serbia has rejected Merkel's call to give up its claim on Kosovo, threatening to indefinitely postpone the date for the start of its EU accession talks.
On Wednesday, the western Balkan states are to get their annual progress reports from the European Commission, with Serbia hoping to at least win a recommendation for EU candidate status. On Dec. 9, EU foreign ministers will decide on the commission's proposals.
"I expect a positive recommendation, meaning that Serbia deserves candidate status," said Milica Delevic, the head of Serbia's government EU integration office.
Before minority Serbs began rioting in Kosovo to protest Albanian rule, Belgrade officials had hoped to receive a firm date for the start of membership talks. That possibility is now firmly off the table due to the violence.
The Serbian government has also been denounced by EU countries for banning a gay pride march last month, citing threats of violence from far-right groups.
The EU accession process would impose fundamental economic and social changes on Serbia _ long considered a pariah for igniting a series of wars in the 1990s in which nearly 150,000 people died.
For much of the past decade, the arrest and the delivery to the U.N. war crimes tribunal of genocide suspect Mladic was the key precondition for Serbia's EU aspirations. The Serbs say that the EU scrambled to impose new conditions once the Bosnian Serb army commander was arrested in May.
"The EU has already forgotten about The Hague tribunal, and the conditions it set for Serbia: that it should detain Mladic to enter the Union," said Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dacic.
"Now, Kosovo has become a central issue," he said. "A reason to put pressure on Serbia can always be found."
Merkel told Belgrade officials during her visit this summer that Serbs have to dismantle their "parallel" rule in the Serb-run north of Kosovo before Serbia could hope to become a EU candidate.
Officials in Serbia, which has not recognized Kosovo's independence, have refused, even at the cost of eventual European integration.
"We are not asking for any privileges and benefits, but we also do not want conditions that would set us apart from other countries," Serbian President Boris Tadic said during a recent Serbia-EU forum in Belgrade.
Kosovo is a particularly sensitive issue for Serbia, which considers the territory its spiritual homeland.
Most Serbs who live in Kosovo's north reject the country's independence. They have clashed with EU and NATO forces, blaming them for supporting Kosovo institutions.
Although the EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia, it insists Serbia establishes "good-neighborly relations" with the former province _ something Belgrade reads as an EU demand to recognize its independence.