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Serbia country profile

21 May 12 10:06 GMT

Serbia inherits membership of the United Nations and other international institutions.

Serbia and Montenegro, the two republics still left in the old Yugoslav federation, had agreed in 2002 to scrap remnants of the ex-communist state and create the new, looser Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

The EU-brokered deal under which the union came into being in 2003 was intended to stabilise the region by settling Montenegrin demands for independence and preventing further changes to Balkan borders.

The same agreement also contained the seeds of the Union's dissolution. It stipulated that after three years the two republics could hold referendums on whether to keep or scrap it. Montenegro duly voted for independence in a referendum in May 2006.

The two republics had been united in one form or another for nearly 90 years. With separation from Montenegro, Serbia is cut off from the Adriatic Sea and becomes landlocked.

Yugoslav era

The end of the Union of Serbia and Montenegro marked the closing chapter in the history of the separation of the six republics of the old Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia which was proclaimed in 1945 and comprised Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia.

Under Yugoslavia's authoritarian communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, the lid was kept on ethnic tensions. The federation lasted for over 10 years after his death in 1980, but under Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic it fell apart through the 1990s.

The secession of Slovenia and Macedonia came relatively peacefully, but there were devastating wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Serbia and Montenegro together formed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between 1992 and 2003.

Kosovo

In 1998 violence flared in the autonomous province of Kosovo in Serbia. The Kosovo Liberation Army, supported by the majority ethnic Albanians, came out in open rebellion against Serbian rule. International pressure on Milosevic grew amid the escalating violence.

Nato launched air strikes in Kosovo and Serbia in March 1999. An exodus of ethnic Albanians to neighbouring countries gathered pace. The UN took over administration of the region after Serbian forces had been driven out.

Kosovo declared independence on 17 February 2008 after the failure of UN-brokered talks on the status of the province. Serbia said the declaration was illegal, and other countries are divided as to whether to recognise it.

Road to Europe

In late 2005, the EU began talks with Belgrade on the possibility of reaching a Stabilisation and Association Agreement. These were called off some months later because of the continuing failure of the Serbian authorities to arrest several war crimes suspects.

One of the most notorious of these, the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 by Serbian security forces and extradited to The Hague, weeks after a pro-Western government took office. European foreign ministers praised the arrest as a significant step for Serbia in its efforts to join the EU.

In December 2009 Serbia formally submitted its application to join the EU. The beginning of accession talks was delayed while two major Serbian war crimes suspects were still at large, but with the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic in 2011, this block to Serbia gaining EU candidate status was removed.

The European Commission duly recommended Serbia for EU candidate status in a report in October 2011, but said that talks could only start after Serbia normalised ties with Kosovo. Continued Serbian refusal to recognise Kosovar independence undermined hopes for swift progress.

Relations with Russia

Although the current Serbian government is pro-Western and sees eventual membership of the EU as being in the country's best interests, Serbia is traditionally an ally of Russia, which supported its opposition to Kosovo's independence.

In 2008, Serbia-Russia ties were further strengthened by the signing of a major energy deal, and in October 2009 Russia granted Serbia a 1bn euro (£0.9bn) loan to help it cover its budget deficit after the economy was hit hard by the global downturn.

The election of the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic as president in 2012 is likely to see further overtures towards Russia, as Mr Nikolic has declared his intention of developing ties with both the European Union and Moscow.

President (outgoing): Boris Tadic

Boris Tadic, leader of the Democratic Party (DS), first took office as president in 2004. He was re-elected in 2008, once again defeating his veteran nationalist rival Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party in a run-off.

Mr Tadic, who took over as DS leader after the assassination of former premier Zoran Djindjic in 2003, backed free market, pro-European reforms and Nato membership.

He called on Serbs to turn their backs on the nationalism of the past and to embrace the European route, which he said would bring lasting improvements to their lives. He also pledged full cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia.

Mr Tadic worked to promote reconciliation between Serbia and other former members of the Yugoslav federation, and in 2010 he paid landmark visits to Srebrenica in Bosnia and Vukovar in Croatia - where notorious massacres were carried out by Serb forces during the conflict of the early 1990s - to pay his respects to the victims of the atrocities.

He was born in 1958 and trained as a psychologist.

President (incoming): Tomislav Nikolic

Serb nationalist leader Tomislav, Nikolic, won the presidential election of 2012 after several previous attempts. He beat the liberal Democratic Party incumbent Boris Tadic in the second round of voting in May, confounding expectations. He will take office in June.

Mr Nikolic founded the Progressive Party in 2008 in order to bring his nationalist supporters closer to the centre-ground of Serbian politics, as the Radical Party, to which he had belonged hitherto, was too closely associated with the Milosevic era of war crimes and xenophobia.

The Progressive Party embraced plans to join the European Union and distanced itself from the pro-Russian, anti-Nato stance of the Radicals.

It campaigned against unemployment, inflation and corruption to become the largest party at parliamentary elections in May 2012, building on this to achieve Mr Nikolic's win in a run-off against Boris Tadic a few weeks later.

Mr Nikolic has repeated his commitment to European integration, but relations with the European Union are unlikely to be as smooth as under the pro-Western Mr Tadic. The disputed status of Kosovo, in particular, will return to the spotlight.

But the new president's main challenges will lie at home - namely the poor state of the economy, and the likelihood of having to share power with a Democrat-Socialist coalition government. These two parties formed a pact after the May parliamentary election.

Born in 1952, Mr Nikolic trained as a building engineer before going into politics as a Radical. He rose to be deputy prime minister of Serbia and Yugoslavia under the nationalist rule of Slobodan Milosevic, and later served as Radical leader Vojislav Seselj's stand-in while the latter faces war-crimes charges in the Hague.

He ran as Radical presidential candidate in the last Yugoslav election in 2000, and then in the Serbian presidential elections of 2003, 2004 and 2008, coming a close second in the last two Serbian polls.

He broke with Mr Seselj after deciding that European integration and economic issues should prevail over nationalist concerns, and went on to form the Progressive Party in 2008, reducing the Radicals to a far-right rump.

Prime minister: Mirko Cvetkovic

Mirko Cvetkovic was sworn in as prime minister in July 2008 after an early election in May.

The election was called after the coalition government led by Vojislav Kostunica fell apart over policy on Kosovo.

Mr Cvetkovic heads a new coalition government in which his own Democratic Party is in an unlikely alliance with erstwhile rivals in the nationalist Socialist Party, as well as smaller parties representing minorities.

In his swearing-in speech, Mr Cvetkovic made clear his government's rejection of Kosovan independence and said he would push for Serbia's accession to the European Union.

His government submitted a formal application to join the EU in December 2009.

Mr Cvetkovic studied Economics in Belgrade and was formerly a finance minister.

Television is, by far, the main source of news and information. The flagship public network, RTS1, is among a handful of outlets that dominate the market.

The media regulator awarded national TV licences in 2006 to private stations B92, TV Pink, News Corp's Fox TV (now Prva Srpska), TV Avala and a licence share to Kosava-Happy TV. It granted five national radio licences - to B92, Radio Index, Radio S, Roadstar and Radio Focus.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in 2010, "death threats, physical or verbal assaults, harassment and corruption are unfortunately still the daily lot of the press." Journalists have been the victims of reprisals for investigating the criminal underworld, RSF said.

There were 4.1 million internet users by June 2010 (Internetworldstats). In the same month, the number of Facebook users topped two million, according to Blic newspaper. Internet access is unrestricted, NGO Freedom House says.

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