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Serbia Close to Signing EU Agreement

But human rights groups say EU decision to “initial” agreement with Serbia is premature.
By Merdijana Sadović
In a surprising turn of events this week, the European Union made a first move towards Serbia’s full membership of the EU, despite Belgrade’s failure to arrest the Hague tribunal’s top war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.



The Stabilization Association Agreement, SAA - a precursor to closer ties with the EU and possible EU membership - was initialed though not signed on November 7, after EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said he was satisfied with the progress Serbia had made in its cooperation with The Hague tribunal.



“Serbia has improved both in the search for fugitives and the access to archives and documents… Therefore, I have decided to initial the SAA with Serbia,” said Rehn this week.



At a brief ceremony in Brussels, Rehn initialed the SAA alongside Serbia's president Boris Tadic and the country’s chief EU negotiator, Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic.



"It is clear for the Serbian people, I trust, that the country now has a very concrete and not too distant perspective with the ultimate goal of EU membership," Rehn told at a press conference following the ceremony.



He added he had agreed to this step only after Del Ponte reported a better level of cooperation by Belgrade, and stressed that formal signing would take place once Serbia was cooperating fully with the Hague tribunal.



Tadic said he hoped the SAA would be signed "in the next few weeks" while Djelic pointed out the aim was for Serbia to win formal recognition as a candidate country by the end of 2008.



After her latest visit to Belgrade only few weeks ago, Del Ponte said Serbia had shown a renewed political will to cooperate with the tribunal. However, she emphasised it had to do much more to arrest the remaining fugitives, including Mladic.



She has repeatedly said that EU pressure has been the most important tool in persuading Balkan states to cooperate with the tribunal. EU pressure on Croatia was decisive in the capture in 2005 of indicted general Ante Gotovina.



Many observers are therefore surprised that the chief prosecutor has given up this important tool while four suspects remain on the run.



At a press conference in The Hague this week, Del Ponte’s spokesperson Olga Kavran said the chief prosecutor believes that “genuine political will exists to arrest and transfer the remaining fugitives”.



“Both President Tadic and Prime Minister [Vojsilav] Kostunica had made it clear that they believed that this would be in Serbia's best interest,” explained Kavran.



She added that the prosecutor's office had been given unimpeded access to the archives of the Serbian military courts and that Del Ponte believed all these developments were promising and could lead “to the arrest of Ratko Mladic and the remaining fugitives very soon”.



The only visible sign of these new activities taken by the Serbian authorities was last week’s detention of Mladic’s son Darko, who was brought in for questioning on his father’s whereabouts.



Pressure groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have expressed their concern that allowing Serbia to initial SAA was a premature move, especially in light of the fact that none of the remaining fugitives have been arrested.



“We are concerned that the EU Enlargement Commissioner Rehn’s decision to go ahead with initialing the SAA sends the message that it is an acceptable strategy to let those who commit horrific crimes wait out justice in the face of other important political challenges,” counsel for the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch Param-Preet Singh told IWPR.



“If the EU member states sign the SAA without the remaining fugitives in the Hague tribunal’s dock, we are concerned that the future looks bleak in terms of bringing them to justice.”



Following the latest turn of events, Serbian officials, led by President Tadic, insisted they will not give up their efforts to track down and arrest all war crimes fugitives.



“If they are in Serbia, we will arrest them and send them to the tribunal,” said Tadic after the ceremony in Brussels.



“We will do this not only because of EU demands, but because of our own values. [The arrest of the remaining fugitives] is the main precondition for reconciliation in the Balkans, and without reconciliation we can’t make progress on the road to the European integrations.”



An advisor to Serbian vice president Vladimir Todoric told IWPR that initialing the SAA between Serbia and the EU is good news for all countries in the region.



“Progress [for] any country in this region gives hope to the whole region,” he said. “We hope Macedonia and Bosnia will soon follow suit.”



However, not many people from the region share this view.



Bosnia’s liaison officer with the Hague tribunal Amir Ahmic, thinks allowing Serbia to initial SAA was a bad decision.



“There is no political consensus in Serbia when it comes to war crimes fugitives and the only tool in persuading them to arrest these people was a political pressure by EU member states,” he told IWPR.



“Now that the pressure is off, I’m afraid we may never see Mladic and other remaining fugitives arrested.”



Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague programme manager. Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR journalist in Belgrade.

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