Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Serbia: Is More Positive Line on ICTY in the Offing?

If a pro-European government is elected in May, Serbia’s cooperation with the tribunal could be bolstered.
While Serbia’s political crisis over Kosovo’s declaration of independence makes cooperation with the Hague tribunal look like a distant prospect, the government collapse may prove a long-term blessing.

President Boris Tadic this week dissolved the Serbian parliament and called new elections after Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, furious about European states’ recognition of Kosovo, refused to agree to keep moving towards European integration.

And public feeling about Kosovo is running high. The Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, was forced to cancel his first official visit to Belgrade last week following street protests prompted by the February 17 declaration of independence.

According to director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy Ivan Vejvoda, it is now unlikely that there will be visible cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, until after parliamentary elections are held on May 11.

“It will require a government in place, whatever government, to see movement on that,” he told IWPR.

“I don’t think we’ll see anything until a government comes in, in terms of big arrests.”

The government collapse came at a crucial time for the tribunal as it races to persuade Belgrade to hand over indicted Bosnian Serb war crime suspects Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic before it is scheduled to close down in 2010.

The two former Bosnian Serb leaders are accused of orchestrating the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica during which more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed.

European states, led by Belgium and the Netherlands, have blocked any closer ties between Serbia and the European Union until the two men are captured.

“We want to make absolutely clear that genocide should never again be allowed on European soil,” Dutch foreign minister Maxime Verhagen told IWPR.

“We have to put into practice European values and standards. That’s especially important if we want to have closer ties with new countries of the European Union.”

But as Serbia heads for elections which are being billed as a choice between a European future and severing ties with the 27-member bloc altogether, ensuring effective long term cooperation with the tribunal seems a distant prospect.

“In Serbia, they are still trying to figure out whether or not they even want to join the EU so I’m sure that cooperation has moved even further down their list of priorities, if it was ever there in the first place,” Param-Preet Singh of Human Rights Watch told IWPR.

Being able to cooperate with Belgrade on tracking down its fugitives seems dependent on a pro-European government being elected in May. In a similar scenario to February’s presidential elections, Serb citizens are divided between two main options: the pro-European Democratic Party; or Kostunica’s nationalist bloc, which wants to turn away from the EU because many of its members recognised Kosovo’s independence.

Many Serbs consider Kosovo their cultural and historical heartland and regard recognition of the Albanian-dominated region to be illegal under international law.

“The domestic scene will be a direct struggle between the pro-European bloc and the patriotic bloc. This will be more difficult [than in the presidential elections] because it’s going on after Kosovo declared independence,” said Jelica Minic, the former deputy president of the European Movement in Serbia.

But despite the public unrest at the loss of Kosovo, there is hope for Serbia’s European future and the possibility of full tribunal cooperation being revived.

“Serbian citizens’ priority is their quality of life, no matter how they feel about the Kosovo situation,” Svetlana Logar, a political analyst in Belgrade, told IWPR.

Serbia currently conducts 60 per cent of its trade with EU member countries and is surrounded by states that are taking steps towards European integration.

“Most people feel strongly about the Kosovo situation and its declaration of independence but on the question of whether Serbia cuts diplomatic ties or continues towards the EU, they say they are against any isolation,” said Logar.

The EU, meanwhile, is still hopeful that Serbia will solve its internal issues and look towards Brussels. It has drawn up plans, still to be approved by member states, to offer a package of measures including relaxed visa requirements and investment in transport infrastructure.

"We are ready to move on once Serbia is ready to do the same," European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn has told Belgrade.

Even the Dutch and Belgian governments were happy for the EU to offer political dialogue to Serbia last month with a view to taking the first steps towards membership once the fugitives are in The Hague.

“The meaning of this offer was to make it clear to the Serbian people that it is our view that the future of Serbia is within Europe and within the European Union,” Verhagen told IWPR.

But although Kostunica’s government rejected the agreement, Minic said such offers from the EU are of vital importance if Serbia is to be encouraged to choose a European future. She says Kostunica would not have rejected the dialogue if the EU had appeared more sincere and had not offered it at the last minute before the crucial second round of presidential elections.

“The offers came too late during the presidential elections and it is not the best time to give these offers. If they had come before then even Mr Kostunica would have reacted in a different way,” said Minic.

“Serbia feels like a loser, like it’s permanently the bad guy… and there is no really sincere willingness from the EU side to integrate Serbia. This is the feeling of frustration.”

This time around, during parliamentary elections, Serbia’s pro-European forces are looking for “a very careful, very delicate policy” from the EU, added Minic.

“Considering that Serbia is constantly on the tipping point [of the EU], it’s the practical implementation or the future vision that’s been the problem, not the strategic orientation", Vejvoda said.

Meanwhile, from the point of view of The Hague, Param-Preet Singh believes there is little Brammertz can do to bolster cooperation until Serbia has made its decision to move on European integration.

“They are so focused on what’s going to happen with the government that any discussion about cooperation would not be hugely productive because there are all these larger issues at stake,” said Singh.

“If they decide to turn to the EU, once they’ve made that decision, then the leverage is back… And that’s when the ICTY cooperation will really come into play.”

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Belgrade.

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