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EU Policy on Serbia Questioned After Nikolic Election Boost

Some media suggest signing an SAA agreement would reward a country that fails to understand European values.
Ultranationalist leader Tomislav Nikolic's success in the first round of Serbia's presidential elections prompts criticism of Brussels’ apparent readiness to sign an EU pre-entry deal with Belgrade.

Some EU countries argue that allowing Serbia to sign the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, on January 28 would encourage its pro-western forces ahead of the presidential runoff on February 3.

The SAA, which was initialled by Belgrade and Brussels in November 2007, is an important milestone on the way to Serbia's eventual membership of the 27-nation union. This has been delayed due to Belgrade’s failure to meet the main pre-condition - the arrest of top war crimes fugitive General Ratko Mladic.

Other EU members, particularly The Netherlands, oppose Serbia’s signing a pre-entry deal, saying Mladic must be apprehended first otherwise the union will risk betraying its basic values and principles.

In last week’s presidential elections, Nikolic, a candidate of the Serbian Radical Party, whose leader Vojsilav Seselj is currently on trial for war crimes in The Hague, won 39.4 per cent of the votes, while his main opponent, pro-western President Boris Tadic, garnered 35.4 per cent, suggesting the second round will be a tight race.

Nikolic, a former ally of ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, has been a deputy in Serbia’s national assembly since 1991 and held several senior government posts.

Observers fear his return to power in Serbia would undermine western efforts to stabilise the region. Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic has warned EU officials this week that 2008 will be “a year of dangerous living” if Nikolic wins in the second round.

The main differences between Tadic and Nikolic are their proposed responses to a Kosovo declaration of independence, their positions towards the EU, as well as their view on Serbia’s cooperation with the Hague tribunal.

Ethnic Albanians in Serbia's southern province of Kosovo are promising to declare independence in the coming weeks.

Tadic has supported handing over Mladic to the court and has also advocated the quick integration of Serbia into the EU, following years of isolation under Milosevic. Nikolic, on the other hand, considers Mladic a hero, and has repeatedly said he wouldn't hand over the former general to the tribunal.

Analysts say that the final result of the elections will determine whether Serbia joins the EU, as Tadic would like, or embraces nationalism, which Nikolic favours. They suggest signing a pre-membership deal later this month would boost popular support for Tadic.

On January 24, Dimitrij Rupel, Slovenia’s foreign minister, the new holder of the EU presidency, reached out to Belgrade saying it “needs help in its approach to the European Union".

"One of the forms of such assistance, or a sign of closeness, should be a signature of the SAA in the coming days," he said.

However, his stance was severely criticised by the Slovenian media. The daily Delo said this week that in the drive to prevent the election of Nikolic in the run-off, the EU is ready “to put aside its principles and is flattering Serbia, which it holds to be the cornerstone of stability and the key to the solution of most of the problems in the region”.

According to Delo, “peace in Kosovo has become more important than General Mladic in The Hague. The EU is yielding to a country which is protecting war crimes suspects and which fails to understand European values”.

When asked earlier in the week what Serbia’s chances were of signing the SAA this month, the EU’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana told reporters in Brussels that "the EU have been discussing the matter for quite some time now.

"But I still hope that it will be possible to sign the SAA with Serbia at the next meeting of EU ministers on January 28, though I can't guarantee it."

However, the main opponent of a softer approach towards Serbia, The Netherlands, is unlikely to change its position that Belgrade should not be allowed to sign the SAA without apprehending Mladic first, even if that means strengthening Nikolic’s chances in the upcoming second round of the presidential elections.

“This is a matter of principle,” said Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen in a recent interview for the German edition of Financial Times.

He made it clear that his country will continue to block plans by the EU presidency to sign a pre-membership agreement with Serbia, unless the Belgrade authorities arrest Mladic and hand him over to the tribunal.

"The day they extradite Mladic [to The Hague] is the day I sign [the SAA]," said Verhagen.

"If we want to maintain our credibility, we have to take care that those who have been accused of responsibility for the first genocide since World War II are also brought

before a court of justice. What is at stake in this are the values on which the EU is based."

Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager.