Serbia: from pariah state to EU path

Serbia, an ex-Yugoslav republic once seen as a pariah state, has set out on the road to European Union membership and holds early parliamentary elections Sunday.

Here are some key facts about the southeastern Balkan nation of 7.12 million people:

POLITICS: After years of single-party rule during and immediately after the period of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia is now a parliamentary democracy headed by President Tomislav Nikolic.

The 250-seat outgoing parliament is dominated by the pro-European Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the senior partner in Serbia's ruling coalition. The SNS is seeking to capitalise at the polls on popular support after getting the EU membership process underway.

ECONOMY: Serbia's economy, based on industry, farming and services, was hit hard by the international sanctions imposed for its role in the 1990s bloody inter-ethnic wars that led to Yugoslavia's break-up.

Serbia's economy entered recession in 2012, contracting by 1.7 percent. Unemployment stands at 20.1 percent of the workforce, and average monthly salaries are just 350 euros ($482).

HISTORY: Serbia was the largest of six republics forming a new Yugoslavia that emerged as a federal socialist state after World War II.

But with the collapse of communism throughout central and eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century, Yugoslavia broke up in a series of bloody wars.

Serbia, led by nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s Balkans wars, remained allied with Montenegro until June 2006 when the latter voted for independence.

Serbia lost its southern province Kosovo following a 1998-99 conflict with separatist ethnic Albanians that was stopped by a NATO air campaign. Kosovo came under UN administration in 1999 and proclaimed independence in 2008.

After Milosevic's ouster in October 2000, Serbia began its transition into a democratic society. It opened EU membership talks in January after meeting demands to capture fugitives wanted by the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and to improve relations with Kosovo.

RELIGION: More than 80 percent of Serbs identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. Religion is one of the key issues in the dispute over Kosovo, which Serbia considers to be the cradle of its nation, but which is predominantly Muslim.