Europe Gives Belgrade Benefit of the Doubt

Belgrade makes big strides towards European integration, despite concerns over rights abuses.

Europe Gives Belgrade Benefit of the Doubt

Belgrade makes big strides towards European integration, despite concerns over rights abuses.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Serbia-Montenegro's admission into the Council of Europe, CoE, last week suggested that its determination to see the country deal with Milosevic's legacy outweighs concerns over human rights abuses and curbs on democratic freedoms following the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

The international community clearly wants to be seen to be encouraging Belgrade as it takes on the mafia and war crimes suspects - which have been two of the major obstacles to the state's reform process and integration into European and world bodies. The West seems to have calculated that the process of removing these cancers from Serbian society may not be possible without some contraventions of basic liberties.

At the accession ceremony in Strasbourg on April 3, the CoE was keen to welcome Belgrade into the council, but also sounded a note of caution about rights abuses. "We understand why the Belgrade government took the decision (to have a state of emergency)," Verena Taylor, the council's special envoy to Serbia and Montenegro. "Some of the things we hear (however) do make us wary."

Serbia-Montenegro president Svetozar Marovic acknowledged the council's concerns, "We are aware of the fact that our admission to the Council of Europe is not only an honour but entails many obligations. Today, we have made the first step - for us it is a big step forward - towards the European integration."

CoE accession is seen by many in the international community as a means of encouraging Serbia-Montenegro to put the Milosevic era behind it and press ahead with economic and political reforms.

Some western diplomats had been concerned that Djindjic's assassination would seriously destabilise Serbia-Montenegro and its immediate neighbours, bolstering nationalists and the anti-Hague lobbies.

Belgrade's absence from European institutions has retarded economic and social development, said Dragoljub Micunovic speaker of the new union's parliament. "I perceive the accession of Serbia-Montenegro to the Council of Europe as a clear political signal that Europe is indeed interested in maintaining stability and development as well as our integration into the European mainstream," he said.

Indeed, Britain's minister for EU relations Denis MacShane visited Belgrade on April 6 and said that London was supportive of the measures taken by the Serbian government aimed at apprehending Djindjic's murderers and other criminals, including those sought The Hague.

America too is now keen to ensure that Serbia-Montenegro continues along its present path, with both the administration and US corporations prepared to back Belgrade.

Help with privatisation is being given by the United States Agency for International Development, USAID, which launched a two-year programme in March to implement transparent and market-oriented auctions, tenders and restructuring procedures in Serbia.

And US Steel announced on April 1 its acquisition of Serbia's bankrupt steel company Sartid for 23 million US dollars, pledging to invest 150 million dollars over three years and maintain the 6,500 strong workforce. Belgrade is hoping that this will encourage further much-needed western investment.

Last week, Colin Powell - stopping off in Belgrade during a diplomatic tour aimed at smoothing over trans-Atlantic splits about the war in Iraq - supported Belgrade's policies and expressed condolences to Djindjic's family. He went on to say that Serbia-Montenegro could count on American assistance, and that it would also get Washington's backing for Euro-Atlantic integration after it stamps out crime, implements reforms and fulfils its obligations towards The Hague.

Belgrade has responded to European and US encouragement by beefing up cooperation with The Hague tribunal, abandoning laws limiting extraditions. Assurances have also been given that detailed investigations into the whereabouts of war crime suspects like former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic and former Yugoslav army officers Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic would be properly conducted.

Serbia-Montenegro's foreign minister Goran Svilanovic admitted that CoE accession meant that the government now had a responsibility to "ensure that war criminals be brought to justice".

Leading human rights organisations used Serbia-Montenegro's accession to the CoE to draw attention to a number of abuses committed during the state of emergency, such as a ban on communication between detainees and their families and lawyers and allegations of ill-treatment and torture of inmates.

"Entry into the Council of Europe entails more than a ceremony in Strasbourg. It must include concrete steps to abide by council standards," said Elizabeth Anderson, a senior representative of Human Rights Watch.

There have also been concerns over the closure of certain media outlets, the sacking or sidelining of some independent-minded judges and the creation of a parliamentary commission to investigate journalists who criticised Djindjic while he was alive.

Daniel Sunter is IWPR's coordinating editor in Belgrade.

Support our journalists