Heads roll in Serbian ruling coalition, likely averting election

BELGRADE Fri Jul 26, 2013 6:26pm BST

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic addresses a news conference after meeting European Commision President Jose Manuel Barroso (unseen) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels June 26, 2013. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic addresses a news conference after meeting European Commision President Jose Manuel Barroso (unseen) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels June 26, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Francois Lenoir

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BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia's year-old ruling coalition neared a deal on Friday on a cabinet reshuffle, likely averting the risk of a snap parliamentary election following weeks of fraught negotiations.

Three ministers so far have left the cabinet: Transport Minister Milutin Mrkonjic of the Socialist Party, and Agriculture Minister Goran Knezevic and Culture Minister Bratislav Petkovic of the nationalist Progressive Party (SNS).

SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic, deputy prime minister in the government and arguably Serbia's most powerful man, announced the departure of Knezevic and Petkovic and said he too might cede his twin post of defence minister.

Weeks of difficult negotiations had fuelled speculation that the SNS, riding high in opinion polls, might instead bring down the government and force a snap election likely to cement its dominance of the Serbian political scene.

"Elections would represent an unnecessary waste and a damaging break in the work of Serbia," Vucic told his party leadership.

Western diplomats were worried another election so soon after the last one in May 2012 might delay implementation of a landmark accord between Serbia and its former Kosovo province, jeopardising hopes that Belgrade will begin talks on joining the European Union in January next year.

The Socialist Party, led by Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, said in a statement it had accepted Mrkonjic's resignation, who has been criticised for his handling of Serbia's creaking transport system.

The third bloc in the coalition, the United Regions party of Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic, was due to convene its leadership on Sunday, after which the coalition is expected to confirm the reshuffle.

(Reporting by Maja Zuvela and Valerie Hopkins; Editing by Matt Robinson and David Evans)

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