The future of Serbia and its chances of gaining eventual membership in the European Union were discussed by scholars last week at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center.

University of Maryland historian John Lampe repeated his belief that the countries of the western Balkans comprise a geographic and economic unit. The region, he says, will rise or fall together.

In this context, Mr. Lampe contrasted the economic and political progress of Bulgaria with the stagnation and decline of war-ravaged Serbia.  Romania's and Bulgaria's advance is about to be rewarded with the promise of European Union accession in 2007, while Serbia, their once much better off western neighbor, languishes, not even admitted to the waiting room for E.U. membership.

Mr. Lampe says it is critical that Serbia meet the E.U. deadline of March 31st for cooperating with the Hague tribunal so that a feasibility study on E.U. membership can begin. He says that while Croatia may gain E.U. entry by 2009, he believes the other countries of the region won't advance unless Serbia similarly moves ahead.

"For any one of the troubled areas, whether it is an independent Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, or for that matter Montenegro, to expect their accession - 2012, 2014 - if Serbia is still where it is, I can't believe that is going to help. I think it is going to hurt," he said.

Mr. Lampe addressed a Wilson Center forum on February 17.  The next day Ivan Vejvoda, the Belgrade head of the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project funded by the German Marshall Fund, sounded a similar theme. Mr. Vejvoda, who served in the reformist government of slain prime minister Zoran Djindjic, worries that Serbia is failing to match the progress of its neighbors.  However, Mr. Vejvoda is optimistic that reformers are gaining strength and that they will position Serbia so that it can join the other former Yugoslav republics in joining the EU.

Mr. Vejvoda called Kosovo the last big unresolved issue in the Balkans. It will be settled, he says, only if all interested parties speak openly with one another.

"The fact of the matter is that everybody has to partake in this solution, first and foremost the Serbs and the Albanians,? he noted.  ?But then also the European Union, the United States, the United Nations."

Both Mr. Vejvoda and Mr. Lampe regard Serbian President Boris Tadic's recent visit to Kosovo as a step forward, one that should facilitate long-stalled negotiations between Pristina and Belgrade.