Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Serbia out in the cold

The European Union, fed up with Serbia's failure to capture Ratko Mladic, a much-wanted war-crimes suspect, has cut off accession talks with Serbia. Though others in the Balkans are moving towards closer integration with Europe, Serbia looks isolated


IT IS more than a decade after Srebrenica, Europe’s worst massacre since the second world war. Yet one of the men implicated in that slaughter is still at large (almost certainly) in a country trying to join the European Union. On Wednesday May 3rd Europe’s patience ran out and the 25-member group cancelled early membership talks with Serbia for failing to arrest Ratko Mladic. He led the Bosnian Serb army during Bosnia’s civil war in the mid-1990s and has been indicted by a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague over Srebrenica.

Serbia once dominated Yugoslavia; now it watches as former junior partners rush ahead to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. The richest bit, Slovenia, nestled in the Alpine west, joined the EU in May 2004. After Croatia started co-operating fully with The Hague, which led ultimately to the arrest of Ante Gotovina, a Croat war-crimes suspect, the way was smoothed for its advanced talks with the EU. Bosnia failed last month to pass constitutional changes needed for EU membership, but even it is closer to Europe than Serbia. Kosovo, though technically still a Serbian province, is mostly ethnic-Albanian and expects to get independence one day. And even tiny Montenegro, which remains welded to Serbia in the former Yugoslavia, may vote for independence in a referendum later this month. Pro-independence forces say Serbia’s truculence holds Montenegro back.

All this rankles in Serbia, where nationalist sentiment is as strong as ever. Serbs say they have been singled out for blame for a war in which all sides committed atrocities. They remember most bitterly that as many as 200,000 ethnic Serbs were driven from Croatia. By far the most popular party in the country is the ethnic-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Serbia’s government says it hoped Mr Mladic, whom many Serbs consider a hero, would surrender himself. But arresting him might further inflame nationalism.

Tough, say the EU and Carla Del Ponte, the gruff boss of the war-crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In March she was told that Mr Mladic was about to be handed over. When that failed to happen Olli Rehn, Europe’s commissioner for enlargement, called off talks with Serbia. These were meant to be the first step on the way to EU membership. Now Serbia’s European future is on hold, while its neighbours make progress: Croatia and Macedonia have already signed “stablisation and association” agreements, Albania will sign one later this year and Bosnia is still negotiating. On Wednesday, an hour after the EU called off talks, Serbia’s deputy prime minister, Miroljub Labus, who led the negotiating team, resigned. He blamed his government for a “betrayal of the Serbian people”.

Serbia seems unable yet to come to terms with the past. Any dreams of regional dominance by a “Greater Serbia” will have to be forgotten if integration into Europe is to become possible. That choice should, nonetheless, be an obvious one. But the Balkans has shown a way of confounding the hopes and expectations of outsiders.

No comments: