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Serbian Leaders Warn Support for Joining European Union Is Waning

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic speaks during the Business Forum Serbia-Albania, in the town of Nis, Serbia, Oct. 14, 2016.

Serbian leaders have warned that support for joining the European Union is waning in favor of stronger ties with Russia, the Balkan country's traditional Slavic ally.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said earlier this week that EU membership remains the goal of his government, despite a changed atmosphere recently that has welcomed a bigger Russian presence in the country.

"In a way, we are losing ground," Vucic said. "We succeeded in losing political momentum and today is a completely different atmosphere ... than it used to be a year or two years ago."

In a sign of the change, the Russian and Serbian militaries held a joint air-force drill this week near Belgrade. Serbia has previously assured Russia that it will never join NATO, despite its interest in joining the EU.

Serbia since 2014 has also refused to impose economic sanctions against Russia for its aggression in Ukraine, as EU members have.

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.

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Belgrade has agreed in negotiations with the EU to normalize ties with Pristina to advance in its membership bid, though it has repeatedly said it will never recognize the ex-province's statehood.

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. "It is over, Kosovo is a state, it is a state recognized by major world powers.... People made their choice."

Rama conceded, however, that for Vucic and Serbia, "this remains taboo."

Rama's statement on Kosovo provoked complaints from Vucic that the EU had put more pressure on Serbia to make concessions than the Kosovo government, provoking resentment in Serbia.

"That is what people see and that is what people feel," Vucic said.

While Vucic spoke in Belgrade, Serbia's pro-Russian President Tomislav Nikolic was visiting Moscow and told TASS that Serbia would never recognize Kosovo to obtain EU membership.

"Serbia will never become an EU member if in exchange it is asked to recognize the independence of Kosovo," he said. "But they do not hear us and keep putting forward this precondition again and again."

Some material for this report came from AP, AFP and Tass.

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