BELGRADE (Reuters) - The European Union cautioned Serbia on Friday not to delay implementing a landmark accord on Kosovo after Belgrade said it might hold a referendum on the deal, which is crucial to its hopes of starting EU membership talks.
The EU-brokered agreement between Serbia and its majority-Albanian former province won Belgrade a preliminary green light for accession talks this year, but the bloc wants progress on the ground before taking a final decision in late June.
The April 19 deal envisages an end to the partition of Kosovo between its ethnic Albanian majority and a small Serb pocket in the north, five years after the territory declared independence. Trying to mollify some 50,000 Serbs in the northern enclave, the Serbian government said on Thursday it might hold a referendum on the agreement.
"It is not up to the European Commission to prescribe how the Serbian authorities would choose to ensure all stakeholders are on board when it comes to implementation of this very important agreement," EU enlargement commission Stefan Fuele told reporters after meeting President Tomislav Nikolic in Belgrade.
"Whatever the way they choose should not delay the process, but at the end actually make sure that the implementation is sustainable," he said.
The government says it will decide next week whether or not to hold a popular vote. It wants to overcome threats of resistance from the north Kosovo Serbs, in a region bristling with weapons and deep animosity.
Serbia has agreed to cede its fragile hold over the north in exchange for the economic boost of EU accession talks, a process that should drive reform and help lure investors to the country's ailing economy.
Two opinion polls published this week suggested a majority of Serbian citizens support the accord. It has the backing of Serbia's coalition government, an alliance of nationalists who last held power together when Serbia went to war with NATO over Kosovo in 1999.
The Western alliance carried out 11 weeks of air strikes to halt the massacre and expulsion of ethnic Albanian civilians by Serbian forces trying to crush a guerrilla insurgency. Kosovo became a ward of the United Nations until it declared independence in 2008, but Serbia retained de facto control over the northern Serb pocket.
(Writing by Matt Robinson, Editing by Mark Trevelyan)