Serbia-EU relations set to improve ahead of Kosovo decision

After Serbia helped arrest a key war-crimes fugitive last week, the EU has promised to resume integration talks.

As the last vestige of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia, Serbia has had trouble getting along with the European Union.

Last year, EU partnership talks broke down over Serbia's failure to turn over its top fugitive, former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who is wanted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague.

But Serbia's role in the arrest late last week of the Balkans' third most-wanted man – Mr. Mladic's aide, Zdravko Tolimir – signals improved relations between the country's new government and the EU. Indicted by the ICTY for his role in the 1995 massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebenica, Mr. Tolimir was apprehended in a joint operation between Serb and Bosnian Serb police forces near the Bosnian-Serbian border.

"Serbia has now demonstrated clear commitment to full cooperation with the ICTY," EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn said this weekend, promising that EU integration talks would resume as soon as June. The exact relaunch date will be decided after ICTY prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who arrived Monday in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, for a week-long visit, issues a report on Serbia's compliance with the ICTY.

The development is significant, coming just ahead of an expected mid-month decision by the UN Security Council on the controversial status of Kosovo, a Serbian province considered the cradle of Serbian civilization that is today populated mainly by ethnic Albanians.

But some worry that allowing Serbia to continue talks while Tolimir's commander, Mladic, remains free, undermines the EU's credibility and may not help bring in either Mladic or the four other fugitive war-crimes suspects.

While this past winter, Belgium and Holland appeared to be the last member states holding out for Serbia to turn over Mladic before allowing talks to resume, other member states seemed keen to throw Serbia a bone in hopes that the country would be more amenable to diplomatic proposals on Kosovo, which will most likely gain independence this year. Serbia opposes any sort of independence for the province, which has been run by the UN since a NATO bombing campaign in 1999 drove Serb forces out.

"There's a view by some European states that they needed to give something to Serbia, while we very much believe that the credibility of the EU lies in its remaining firm, as opposed to going back on its words," says Geraldine Mattioli, an international-justice advocate with Human Rights Watch in Brussels. "We are afraid that the European Union is letting go of a key leverage that they had with Serbia."

That leverage on both Serbia and Croatia produced a wave of so-called voluntary surrenders of more than one dozen Serb suspects in 2004 and 2005, as well as the arrest of fugitive Croatian Gen. Ante Gotovina. The voluntary surrenders, which involved under-the-radar police action and the financial rewards from the Serbian government to the families of fugitives who turned themselves in, had echoes in the arrest of Tolimir.

The former assistant intelligence commander of the Bosnian Serb Army's main staff was arrested just over the border in the eastern Bosnian hinterlands – though several sources last year said he was ill at home in the Serbian capital.

"If Tolimir's as sick as we've been led to believe, it's incredulous to believe that he was in Bratunac. It's not a health spa," says Kurt Basseuner, a Sarajevo-based senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council advocacy group. Mr. Basseuner also criticizes Serbia's new National Security Council, chaired by pro-Western president Boris Tadic, as "a smiling happy facade on a government that's had little change," because the interior ministry is still run by hardliners who have shown no interest in cooperating with the tribunal.

While he and other critics inside and outside Serbia doubt that much will move forward on war-crimes fugitives if the EU's conditionality is removed, the arrest of Tolimir makes one thing certain about any future arrests of fugitives. "You can almost guarantee that they will not be captured in Serbia," Basseuner says.

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