Serbia Faces Many Obstacles On Its Road to the EU

There were two milestones in the Balkans this July: the 13th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, when Serb nationalists killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys, and the arrest last week of the fugitive president of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic, who is charged as the architect of that and other war crimes. As the Serbian government prepared to send Karadzic off to stand trial at the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, there was dancing in Sarajevo and beyond. "This is a historic event, all the more so because the Serbs did it," says Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the end of the war in Bosnia. José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, called Karadzic's arrest "very important for Serbia's European aspirations."

The arrest may yet help Serbia become a member of the European Union. His capture has long been a precondition of accession talks moving forward. What is less clear is if Serbia is remotely ready to meet the other conditions of EU membership, which require candidates to create stable democratic institutions and a competitive market economy—or at least to make moves in the right direction. Since the Dayton peace accords of 1995, Serbian politics has been dominated by nationalists and radicals, and the nation has lost tremendous ground to its neighbors. The former Yugoslav republic of Croatia is well on its way to membership, which Barroso predicts could happen by 2010.

Meanwhile, Serbia has 30 percent unemployment, and with the exception of the agricultural sector, growth has been moribund since dictator Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in 2000. Serbia has yet to finish denationalizing its major industries, or shed its huge numbers of superfluous government employees. "The last eight years have been wasted," says Gerald Knaus, director of the European Stability Initiative. "Neighbors like Bulgaria and Romania are members of the EU, and Serbia is not even a candidate." Although Serbia had been the dominant republic before the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia is at least five years ahead of it in the EU accession process. And that assumes that Serbia will soon deliver its remaining war-crimes fugitives, Gen. Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic.

Then there is Kosovo. While more than 40 countries, including more than two thirds of the EU members and the United States, recognized its February declaration of independence, no mainstream Serbian politician is willing to let Kosovo go, including even Serbia's President Boris Tadic, a liberal who narrowly won election over the nationalists in April. "I don't see how the EU can take in a member who disputes its borders, especially with a neighbor who is also a potential [EU] member," says Holbrooke.

Even if Serbia meets the criteria for entering the EU, its refusal to take responsibility for the Balkan wars bodes poorly for regional stability. Srdjan Bogosavljevic, a Belgrade pollster, says that two thirds of Serbs reject Europe's view that Serbia was the aggressor in the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, and one third even see leaders like Karadzic as war heroes. Only one third think they deserve to be tried as war criminals. Most people, says Bogosavljevic, "are not ready to accept that there were war crimes committed by Serbs." Instead, they see his arrest as a Faustian bargain: the alleged war criminal in exchange for entry into the European Union.

So great is the nationalist sentiment that Serb authorities were clearly nervous about announcing the arrest for fear of causing a violent backlash. Hours before its first terse announcement on July 21, Tadic's government effectively dismissed Parliament until the end of summer—apparently concerned about a backlash from hard-liners. At a press conference the next day, Serbia's own war-crimes special court, which is holding Karadzic pending extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague, gave few details of the arrest. It's still not clear exactly when Karadzic was apprehended, or by whom. In fact, Serbia's minister of the Interior, Ivica Dacic, has publicly disavowed the involvement of any of his police forces in Karadzic's capture.

It now falls to Tadic to restore the Serb candidacy, and so far signs are good. Knaus, a longtime observer of Serbia, says Tadic has shown he's willing to make difficult institutional changes. For years, says Knaus, Serbia didn't want to face the past, and there was "a broad infrastructure of people still in office who were the past." But Tadic, in one significant break from institutionalized nationalism, appointed in July an outsider to head the nation's secret police, which had remained under the control of hard-liners since the Milosevic era. The move apparently made Karadzic's arrest possible for the first time. Also significant is the fact that Karadzic's arrest came so soon after Serbia suffered the blow of Kosovar independence, says Sonja Biserko, head of Belgrade's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. Vojislav Kostunica's hard-line government, ousted by Tadic in April, reacted to the declaration by turning to Russia for support. Tadic has tacked back. "For the first time there's a sense of defeat for the nationalists," says Biserko.

The capture of two remaining fugitives—Mladic, the general in charge of the Bosnian military who conducted the Srebrenica operation, and Hadzic, the leader of the Serb region of Krajina in Croatia—would further confirm Tadic's willingness to defy Serbian nationalism in the interest of EU membership. Both fugitives were allowed to roam free (Mladic even got his military pension) during Kostunica's government, and their popularity rose while they were in hiding.

For its part, the EU has already earned a certain debt of gratitude from Tadic. During the election campaign, it looked possible that the Radicals, a party led by an indicted war criminal, would win. But on the eve of the vote, the EU essentially intervened by announcing that it intended to sign with Serbia a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a first step toward EU membership that would give Serbia advantageous trade terms, financial support and a range of other benefits. The announcement was widely credited with swinging voters to Tadic at the last minute.

Serbia would prefer to have it both ways. Most would deny their role as the wrongdoers of the region, but a majority also want to join Europe. Some doubt that will work. "I don't think until the Serbs come to terms with their past we will ever see an end to fighting in the Balkans," says James Lyon, head of the International Crisis Group in Belgrade. It's easy to forget that the Balkan wars ended in an imperfect stalemate, in a peace imposed by NATO and the United States, and still enforced by foreign peacekeepers rather than good will. European leaders hope to change that by bringing Serbia into the community, however recalcitrant its population. In Boris Tadic, they've found a kindred spirit.