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"Disappointed" EU says Serbia deal delayed

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union said on Wednesday it will not sign a pact on ties with Serbia this week as planned, after Belgrade’s nationalist prime minister blocked the move.

The two sides were to have signed the deal on trade, visas and education on Thursday but Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica denounced it as a trick on Tuesday, bringing Belgrade’s ruling coalition close to collapse.

Kostunica said the pact was a sop to Serbia by the European Union for the imminent loss of the breakaway province of Kosovo.

EU Commissioner Olli Rehn accused Kostunica of going back on a longstanding understanding not to link Serbia’s EU ties to Kosovo, for which the EU on Monday authorised a supervisory mission ahead of an independence declaration seen this month.

“With this blockage, certain politicians are in a way filing for a divorce before the marriage has yet even been agreed,” Rehn told a news briefing. “I find that...rather regrettable.”

“It is truly sad for Serbia that politicians continue to put power games ahead of their own citizens’ interests,” he added, saying that Kostunica had agreed some 18 months ago not to link Serbia’s EU ties to Kosovo’s fate.

EU foreign ministers offered the deal last week to prevent a nationalist backlash in Sunday’s presidential election, narrowly won by pro-EU incumbent Boris Tadic over a pro-Russian challenger.

Rehn and Slovenia, current holder of the EU’s rotating presidency said the proposed pact with Serbia remained on the table.

“The presidency hopes that Serbia will soon positively respond to the European offer, which would enable the signing of the agreement in the following days,” Slovenia said in a statement late on Wednesday.

Rehn said the 27-nation bloc also remained ready to sign the broader Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA), a prelude to membership, when Belgrade met the political conditions -- full cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Tadic was re-elected on a pledge of pursuing EU membership no matter what happens with Kosovo, where the 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority is set to declare independence this month with the West’s backing.

Former U.S. ambassador to Serbia, William Montgomery, said this week Kostunica seemed determined to force the EU to choose between its plans for Kosovo and its relationship with Serbia.

It was hard to see how the impasse could end in any way other than a breakdown in the coalition, he said.

Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Stephen Weeks