European Union leaders formally made Serbia a candidate for membership in the bloc last night, in a remarkable turnaround for a country considered a pariah just over a decade ago.
Serbia had been widely expected to get EU candidacy in December after it captured two top war crimes suspects, but was disappointed when Germany delayed the move, saying it wanted to see more progress in talks with Kosovo.
"We agreed tonight to grant Serbia the status of candidate country," EU president Herman Van Rompuy said after a meeting of the bloc's heads of state and government.
"This is a remarkable result. I hope Belgrade will continue to encourage good neighbourly relations in the Western Balkans."
Serbia spent much of the 1990s ostracised and isolated from the EU after its then strongman Slobodan Milosevic started the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. In 1999, Nato bombed Serbia to prevent a crackdown on ethnic Albanians.
Candidate status is an initial step on the road to EU membership. Belgrade will still probably have to wait for about a year to open actual accession negotiations, which can then drag on for several years.
Still, the EU move is politically important for Serbia's pro-EU president Boris Tadic, whose party faces elections soon.
The European Parliament urged the bloc's executive body today to open accession negotiations with Serbia as soon as possible.
Kosovo, which many Serbs consider the cradle of their statehood and religion, came under international control after the 1999 war during which Nato forces ejected Milosevic's troops. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, but Serbia refuses to recognise it.
The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia's candidacy, but it insists Serbia establish "good-neighbourly relations" with its former province.
Over the past year, the two sides have been engaged in EU-mediated talks dealing mostly with practical matters such as recognising each other's official documents.
A key agreement reached last month allows Kosovo to represent itself in international conferences and spell out the technical details of how Serbia and Kosovo will manage their joint borders and border crossings.
Kosovo has been recognised by nearly 90 nations, including 22 of the EU's 27 member states. But Serbia has blocked its membership in the UN, where many countries also reject unilateral declarations of independence.
Tim Judah, a London-based Balkan analyst and author, said the EU decision was good for Serbia "because it means that minds can concentrate on the building a better Serbia for the future, and not resort to looking back to the past".
"What is good for Serbia is also good for the region," he said. "A sign of confidence in the biggest state of the western Balkans will always have at least some effect with the neighbours."