BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's prime minister warned on Thursday that support for European Union integration is crumbling in the Balkan country in favor of stronger ties with traditional Slavic ally Russia.
Aleksandar Vucic said that EU membership remains the strategic goal of his government, despite widespread support for a bigger presence of Russia in Serbia and a changed atmosphere recently.
"In a way, we are losing ground," Vucic said, warning that the situation in the postwar Balkans has been worsening too. "We succeeded in losing political momentum and today is a completely different atmosphere ... than it used to be a year or two years ago."
Serbia formally wants to join the 28-nation European Union, but Russia's influence remains strong and Belgrade has refused to impose Western-backed sanctions against the Kremlin for its role in the Ukrainian crisis.
Moscow has backed Serbia in its dispute with the West over Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian former province whose 2008 declaration of independence Serbia has refused to recognize.
Belgrade has agreed to normalize ties with Pristina to advance in its EU bid though it has repeatedly said it will never recognize the ex-province's statehood. An EU-mediated dialogue has been launched to tackle problematic issues.
Vucic spoke at a debate in Belgrade with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who urged Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo, saying it would benefit regional stability.
"The sooner Serbia recognizes Kosovo the better it will be for everyone," Rama said.
Vucic complained that Serbia's position has not been sufficiently taken into account both regionally and within the EU. He said the EU is viewed in Serbia as an organization that puts more pressure on the Serbs than the Kosovo government, which has been recognized by most EU nations.
"That is what people see and that is what people feel," Vucic said.
Moscow has said it does not object to Serbia's EU membership, but Belgrade has ruled out any possibility of joining NATO. In a sign of close ties, Russian and Serbian armies were holding a joint air force drill this week near Belgrade.
Serbia's pro-Russian President Tomislav Nikolic said meanwhile during a visit to Russia that the EU should say openly whether Serbia's eventual membership will be conditioned on the recognition of Kosovo.
"I have always warned that when our representatives go to talks in Brussels ... they face two opponents: EU representatives and representatives of the Pristina administration," Nikolic said.