EU FMs to mull YU elections
BRUSSELS, Sep 18, 2000 -- (Reuters) European Union foreign ministers meet on Monday to fine-tune the bloc's approach to Yugoslavia ahead of elections next weekend which will determine whether President Slobodan Milosevic remains in power.
Meeting, in Brussels, for the last time before the September 24 Yugoslav presidential and parliamentary polls, ministers are already armed with a pledge to radically revise EU policy on Serbia if voters there opt for the democratic opposition.
Diplomats said they would discuss on Monday what to do if the hard-line Serbian nationalist president stays in power, either by winning, or as many western observers suspect, losing and remaining in power anyway for another four years.
The ministers will also agree to almost completely open the EU market to industrial and agricultural products from struggling Balkan countries surrounding Serbia, in a bid to sow the seeds of stability and prosperity in a region still seen as vulnerable to conflict.
Under the agreement, 95 percent of industrial and agricultural goods from Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Albania will be let in duty free.
Serbia's UN-administered province Kosovo and its pro-western junior partner Montenegro will also receive trade privileges, while Serbia proper will remain excluded as long as Milosevic, an indicted war criminal, remains in power.
The latest opinion poll from Serbia on Friday showed Milosevic trailing badly behind his main challenger Vojislav Kostunica, with 22 percent versus 40 percent support.
But Western officials from NATO, the United Nations and the European Union, along with rights groups, say next Sunday's vote is unlikely to be free and fair.
The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has said the campaign is flawed by intimidation and media manipulation and scope for "gross and unchecked fraud" made a fair vote unlikely.
The EU ministers will also seek to delve into discussions on difficult internal reforms the 15-nation bloc has to make to prepare for admitting up to 12 new members.
A deadline for agreement at the EU's December summit in Nice, France, is less than three months away, and the EU needs to meet the deadline to honor a pledge to be ready to admit its first new members by January 1, 2003.
The ministers will also discuss progress in the enlargement talks, with countries like Britain expected to ask for a pick up in pace and the prospect of a timetable for aspiring members from eastern and central Europe and the Mediterranean.