Overwhelming support as deal is approved in 173-24 vote

Serbian lawmakers, on Friday, overwhelmingly supported an agreement normalising relations with breakaway Kosovo, a potentially landmark deal that could end years of tensions between the Balkan antagonists and put them both on a path to European Union (EU) membership.

Parliament backed the deal in a 173-24 vote. The agreement drew support from the parties of the ruling, nationalist-led government and the centre-left opposition. A pro-Russian, nationalist party was the only group that voted against it.

Parliamentary backing is a boost for the Serbian government, which reached the agreement with Kosovo this month in Brussels, but has faced pressure from nationalists and Serb hardliners in Kosovo’s divided north, who rejected it.

“This is not just a simple vote about the agreement,” Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told lawmakers at the end of the daylong, heated debate. “This vote shows what we stand for and which way we want to go.”

Serbia has rejected Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence — recognised by more than 90 countries including the U.S. and 22 of the EU’s 27 members — but must improve ties with the former province to advance its bid to join the EU.

“The agreement with Pristina has sent a strong message across the whole of Europe about Serbia’s European attitude,” said EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said earlier on Friday during a visit to Belgrade.

“Serbia moved beyond past conflicts and closer to the future within Europe.”

The deal will give Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership authority over rebel Kosovo Serbs, ending Serbia’s control in northern Kosovo. The Serbs, in return, will be granted wide-ranging autonomy.

‘Referendum possible’

Nationalists have insisted that this amounted to treason.

Mr. Dacic rejected the nationalists’ accusations, insisting that “we did not betray our country, we were defending it”.

He reiterated that Serbia will never recognise Kosovo’s statehood.

Top Serbian leaders have said a referendum on the deal is possible, counting on popular support to silence dissent and enable easier implementation on the ground in Kosovo.

Mr. Fule said that “whatever the way they chose it should not delay the process, but in the end make sure that the implementation is sustainable”.

He also said “effective implementation” will be key for EU member states when they decide in June whether to open accession talks with Belgrade.

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