Serbian lawmakers on Friday overwhelmingly supported an agreement normalizing relations with breakaway Kosovo, a potentially landmark deal that could end years of tensions between the Balkan antagonists and put them both on a path to European Union membership.
Parliament backed the deal in a 173-24 vote. The agreement drew support from the parties of the ruling, nationalist-led government and the center-left opposition. A pro-Russian, nationalist party was the only group that voted against it.
Parliamentary backing is a boost for the Serbian government, which reached the agreement with Kosovo this month in Brussels, but has faced pressure from nationalists and Serb hardliners in Kosovo's divided north, who rejected it.
"This is not just a simple vote about the agreement," Prime Minister Ivica Dacic told lawmakers at the end of the daylong, heated debate. "This vote shows what we stand for and which way we want to go."
Serbia has rejected Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence — which has been recognized by more than 90 countries including the U.S. and 22 of the EU's 27 members — but it must improve ties with the former province to advance its bid to join the EU.
"The agreement with Pristina has sent a strong message across the whole of Europe about Serbia's European attitude," EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said earlier Friday during a visit to Belgrade. "Serbia moved beyond past conflicts and closer to the future within Europe."
The deal will give Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leadership authority over rebel Kosovo Serbs, ending Serbia's control in northern Kosovo. The Serbs, in return, will be granted wide-ranging autonomy.
Nationalists have insisted that this amounted to treason. Slobodan Samardzic, a lawmaker from nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, said during the parliamentary debate that "the agreement means our people must give up their state." Several hundred extremists rallied outside parliament amid a heavy police presence.
Dacic rejected the accusations, insisting that "we did not betray our country, we were defending it." He reiterated that Serbia will never recognize Kosovo's statehood.
"We made the move," he said. "Did you think it was easy?"
Top Serbian leaders have said a referendum on the deal is possible, counting on popular support to silence dissent and enable easier implementation on the ground in Kosovo.
Fule said that "whatever the way they chose it should not delay the process, but in the end make sure that the implementation is sustainable." He also said "effective implementation" will be key for EU member states when they decide in June whether to open accession talks with Belgrade.
Earlier, Dacic also told lawmakers that Serbia would become "Europe's North Korea" if it rejected the deal.
Serbia's warmongering policies during the 1990s turned the country into an international pariah, facing U.N. sanctions and isolation. Years of wars and crisis also severely impoverished the country's economy.
After the Kosovo agreement, the European Commission recommended opening membership negotiations with Belgrade, an important step on the EU path that Serbia hopes will pave the way for foreign investment and unblock access to the bloc's pre-entry funds.
Serbia relinquished control of most of Kosovo in 1999 when NATO chased its troops out of the region in a three-month bombing campaign. The EU has insisted on ending the partition of Kosovo between the Albanian majority and the Serb-controlled north — about a fifth of the country.