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

Serbia's EU Hopes Still on Hold

Belgrade officials disappointed that Karadzic arrest failed to activate interim trade agreement.
By Aleksandar Roknić

Serbian politicians are frustrated that some European Union members are blocking a trade deal with Belgrade, despite the recent arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Many were optimistic that the arrest of the Hague fugitive might persuade European ministers to unfreeze an interim trade agreement, which formed part of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, between the EU and Serbia in April.

“We all hoped that [Karadzic’s capture] would lead to the unfreezing of the trade agreement, but for some countries this wasn't enough,” said director of the European Integration Office of Serbia, SEIO, Tanja Miscevic.

Under the interim trade agreement, Serbia would have 90 per cent of the benefits it will have when the SAA is implemented.

When the EU offered the SAA to Serbia, it was widely seen as an attempt to boost support for pro-European parties in the run-up to parliamentary elections on May 11. But the offer came with conditions – the arrest of remaining Hague tribunal indictees.

At the time, this included Karadzic, his army chief Ratko Mladic, Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic and Stojan Zupljanin, a Bosnian Serb police official. Zupljanin and Karadzic were arrested in Serbia in June and July respectively, and transferred to The Hague, while Mladic and Hadzic are still on the run.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers earlier this month, the majority said they were happy to unfreeze the interim trade deal, but this was blocked by the Netherlands and Belgium, insisting that all remaining war crimes fugitives must first be arrested.

“We can vote [to unfreeze the trade] agreement with Serbia tomorow, but under one condition – the arrest of Ratko Mladic and better witness protection [in the region],” said Dutch foreign affairs minister Maxime Ferhagen.

According to Ferhagen, it was unrealistic for Belgrade to expect the council of ministers to permit the trade deal to proceed. He added that the Netherlands has consistently taken the position that it won’t be allowed – and that Serbia will not move closer to joining the EU – until Mladic is in The Hague.

Following the foreign ministers meeting, some Serbian officials expressed disappointment at the outcome.

Vice-President Bozidar Djelic said that the Netherlands had been “unfair” to Serbia in refusing to sanction the deal in spite of the arrest of Karadzic.

Serbia began negotiations with the EU in 2001 after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, who died in March 2006 while on trial at the Hague tribunal.

Although Serbia has expressed desire to become an official EU candidate by as early as next year, unless the Netherlands and Belgium change their mind soon, this goal seems unrealistic.

Despite the latest setback, Serbian politicians remain focused on achieving further EU integration, with more than 60 per cent of the population in favour of membership.

Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said that Serbia will implement the trade agreement unilaterally from 2009 and continue to work closely with the tribunal.

Politicians now hope that the Netherlands and Belgium might change their minds about the agreement at a meeting of EU council of ministers scheduled for October 13.

Djelic’s former adviser Vladimir Todoric – who is now editor of the Serbian Law Review – remains optimistic that the deal will soon be in force, without Serbia handing over the remaining fugitives.

“I think that we can expect that the EU will unblock the trade agreement in October because the pressure of member states [who support unfreezing] will grow,” he told IWPR.

However, analysts say it is unrealistic to expect the Netherlands and Belgium to soften their position in the coming weeks – especially as they were reluctant to offer Serbia the SAA in first place, while four war crimes suspects were still at large.

Miljenko Dereta, executive director at the Belgrade-based NGO Civic Initiative, said Serbia was naive to have raised its hopes over the trade agreement, which is seen as a significant step forward towards EU membership.

“The EU made clear demands to Serbia about the steps to full membership. It was quite obvious that Belgrade didn’t fulfil all the EU demands. They think that if they show political will, that will be enough for the EU, but that is not the case,” said Dereta.

International relations expert Bojan Djuric is hopeful that this recent hitch will not spoil EU-Serbian relations, saying it is clear what Belgrade needs to do – cooperate with the tribunal.

“Serbia took on the obligation to resolve the tribunal problem before the trade agreement was [offered],” Djuric told IWPR.

Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade.

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