Is Europe ready for Serbia?

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 15/07/08):

Serbia seems suddenly to have become what Americans call a “normal country”. After more than 15 years spent fighting itself, its neighbours and much of Europe, a democratically-elected, pro-western government came to power in Belgrade last week, pledged to the non-violent resolution of disputes.

This development deserves more attention than it has so far received. The death throes of Yugoslavia, the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, the Bosnian conflict, horrendous war crimes, and the battle for Kosovo profoundly changed Europe’s view of itself. These dread events accelerated EU enlargement and foreshadowed a bigger, impending collision of Christian and Muslim worlds.

Serbian governments have come and gone with confusing rapidity since Milosevic fell, often against a backdrop of gangsterism and assassination. But the latest 10-party coalition, led by the moderate former finance minister, Mirko Cvetkovic, and overseen by the president, Boris Tadic, seems to have won broad support for a long-awaited programme of reforms.

Cvetkovic’s agenda includes formal EU candidate status within a year and full membership roughly five years from now; rebuilding of ties with the US; closer integration in Nato; reform of the army, police and judiciary; new privatisation and competition policies, and an all-out effort to boost jobs and an economy that has fallen behind those of its Balkan neighbours.

“Joining the EU will enable Serbia to become a fully-fledged member of the European family of nations from which Serbia has been excluded for a long time due to certain unfortunate historical circumstances,” Cvetkovic told parliament.

Yet while Serbia, after a long and painful journey, finally appears ready for Europe, it is uncertain whether Europe is ready for Serbia. Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner, long dangled the enticing fruits of membership before the Serbian public to encourage support for reformists. The tactic eventually worked. But three key obstacles may now prevent Brussels fulfilling its promises.

The first is confusion within the EU itself following last month’s rejection by Irish voters of the Lisbon constitutional reform treaty. Most European leaders believe an expanded EU cannot function efficiently in future unless the Lisbon reforms are implemented.

Katinka Barysch of thinktank Centre for European Reform said Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, backed by Angela Merkel of Germany, has now called a halt to future enlargement while the Irish, and more particularly the reluctant Poles and Czechs, think again. That may leave Serbia twiddling its thumbs indefinitely.

Belgrade has also yet to satisfy prosecutors in the Hague that it is trying as hard as it might to capture prominent war crimes suspects such as Ratko Mladic, the Serb general accused of leading the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Officials say they expect a new push to arrest Mladic, Radovan Karadzic and Goran Hadzic. “The arrests are a necessity, the only way to protect basic human values . . . Only in such a way can our country become an equal member of the international community,” said Snezana Malovic, the new justice minister.

But the Hague’s recent decisions to free Naser Oric, a Bosnian Muslim accused of complicity in the 1990s murders of Serbs, and the former Kosovo Liberation Army chief, Ramush Haradinaj, has infuriated public opinion, a Serbian official said. “It’s hard to get support for hunting down suspects when people think the court is anti-Serb.”

The third obstacle to Serbia’s European reintegration is perhaps the most difficult: Belgrade’s passionate insistence that it will “never” accept Kosovo’s February declaration of independence and the EU’s tacit insistence that it must do so if it wants to join the club.

Even the relatively enlightened Cvetkovic flatly rejects a unilateral secession that most Serbs (and Russia) believe was illegally engineered by the EU and the US. “We will keep the Kosovo issue alive by all political, legal and diplomatic means at our disposal. But we will not resort to force or make an economic blockade,” the Serbian official said.

Belgrade’s next move will be to seek a UN general assembly resolution in September asking the international court of justice to consider whether Kosovo’s declaration of independence was illegal. Serbia had a lot of sympathy for its case, the official claimed, noting that only 43 out of 192 countries have recognised Kosovo. Most African and Latin American states, plus China, Russia, and seven EU members, viewed it as a dangerous precedent.

Belgrade’s leaders take consolation in the fact that their letting go of Kosovo has not been made an explicit condition of progress towards EU membership. But Barysch suggested they were deluding themselves. In 2004 the EU admitted a divided and disputatious Cyprus and was determined not to repeat the mistake, she said. “There is absolutely no way Serbia will be allowed in if border issues are not settled and there isn’t a sustainable solution in place.”