BELGRADE Serbia accused Croatia on Friday of obstructing its negotiations on European Union membership and said it would not submit to blackmail by its neighbour.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said his government was "stunned by Croatia's decision not to support Serbia's European path" after Croatian officials in Brussels refused to give their assent to Serbia opening talks on a new chapter or policy area in the negotiations.
"Serbia will not allow itself to be blackmailed, humiliated or disrespected by anyone," Vucic said in a statement. "Serbia will never be anyone's punching bag."
A row has been brewing since Croatia said this week that Serbia must change its law on prosecuting crimes committed during the 1990s Balkan wars as a condition for completing its EU membership negotiations.
Croatia, which fought a 1991-95 war against Belgrade-backed Serb rebels to forge its independence from Yugoslavia, says it is unacceptable for Serbia to claim jurisdiction for war crimes committed on the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia.
With Serbian elections set for April 24, the dispute could give ammunition to ultra-nationalists who loathe Vucic's policies of integration with the EU and instead favour close ties with Russia.
Croatia joined the EU in 2013 whereas Serbia only opened negotiations in December. Since all 28 EU governments must agree to the opening and closing of new chapters in negotiations with prospective members, that effectively gives Croatia a veto over Serbia's membership.
Officials in Serbia said Croatia was not saying "no" to opening talks on the judiciary and fundamental rights but was delaying taking a decision on the issue.
Croatia wants the European Commission to accept its concerns over the war crimes law and several other issues as conditions for a successful outcome to Serbia's EU negotiations, officials there say.
"Croatia is now waiting for Brussels to voice how it plans to incorporate criteria that Serbia needs to meet into the negotiation benchmarks," Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac said in Zagreb on Friday.
"We want to have good neighbourly relations with Serbia and for that, healthy foundations are needed, which includes resolving war legacy issues," he said.
Other conditions Croatia wants the EU to set for Serbia include full compliance with a bilateral agreement on protecting minorities and full cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Serbia, which hopes to wrap up its EU membership talks by 2019, says it already cooperates with the U.N. tribunal.
(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade and Igor Ilic in Zagreb; editing by Adrian Croft and Andrew Roche)
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