Friday, July 25, 2008

The EU will want more from Serbia than arrests

by Tomas Valasek

On July 21st, Serbian security agents hauled Radovan Karadzic off a bus in Belgrade and took him into custody. The long-wanted wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs now awaits extradition to the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague, where he stands accused of crimes against humanity for his role in the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My conversations with analysts, journalists and diplomats in Belgrade this week suggest that his arrest could signal the beginning of Serbia’s full reconciliation with its role in the Yugoslav wars. It also opens the door to improved relations with the EU. However, Serbia’s application for EU membership will remain on hold until Belgrade and Brussels can agree on a better way of co-operating over Kosovo.

Karadzic had been hiding in Serbia for much of his 13-year run from the law. There are two schools of thought among local and Western observers in Belgrade on why the Serbian security forces moved to arrest Karadzic. Both assume that Serbia has known for a while that Karadzic had been hiding on its territory, rather than in Bosnia, where he committed his crimes. And both acknowledge that Serbia’s co-operation with the Hague Tribunal has been half-hearted of late.

Belgrade did arrest some accused war criminals, most notably Serbia’s former leader, Slobodan Milosevic. But shortly after Milosevic’s arrest – and largely because of it – elements in the security forces assassinated the then-prime minister Zoran Djindjic. Subsequent governments have been far more cautious. Belgrade would occasionally arrest smaller fish, usually right before important EU summits. This allowed Serbian governments to claim compliance with The Hague’s demands, without really dealing with Serbia’s role in the Yugoslav wars. All along, security forces loyal to the Milosevic regime were allowed to protect the most wanted criminals, like Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb military.

So when the news of Karadzic’s arrest broke, some in Belgrade and Brussels – the first school of thought – saw it as a half-hearted attempt to improve Serbia’s image and win kudos with the European Union, which Serbia would like to join as soon as possible. But this time, things may be different. The second school of thought, to which I subscribe, argues that domestic politics played a crucial role in the arrest.

Karadzic’s arrest comes shortly after Serbia voted in what is arguably the most pro-EU government since Djindjic’s assassination. All recent Serbian governments had combined openly pro-Western parties with more nationalist voices, and so does the current coalition. But in this government the roles have been reversed. President Boris Tadic’s party ousted the nationalist prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, who had been seen in Belgrade as the main obstacle to arrests of Karadzic and Mladic. Pro-EU parties now dominate, and they have gained a tighter control over the security apparatus. Right after forming a government, Tadic removed the head of secret service, who had helped protect indicted war criminals. The arrest of Karadzic came just two days later. People close to Tadic believe that the other remaining ‘big fish’, like Ratko Mladic, will be arrested soon as well.

Tadic won the election on a platform of bringing Serbia into the EU and attracting Western investment, both of which should improve Serbs’ poor living standards. But the EU wanted (and still wants) to see more arrests of war criminals before it moves Serbia’s application forward. No arrests, no EU integration, no foreign investment, no economic recovery. So Tadic decided that there were strong domestic reasons to move forward on the war crimes issue. The arrest of Karadzic, Serbian analysts say, has also helped boost Tadic’s image – he had a reputation for vacillating but this bold step has made him look like a leader. And he seems to have rightly calculated that the Serbian public would support him. There were precious few demonstrators in the streets of Belgrade after Karadzic’s arrest. This, in turn, made the nationalist opposition look out of touch.

On balance, Tadic’s pursuit of war criminals seems genuine. It strengthens his domestic political position, and it improves Serbia’s standing in the eyes of the EU. But Kosovo will continue to plague the Brussels-Belgrade relationship. Serbia is a candidate for EU membership, and it recently signed a new partnership agreement with the EU, the ‘stability and association agreement’, or SAA. But the EU has held up the agreement’s entry into force, in order to pressure Belgrade to apprehend war criminals. The EU also has a second reason for being reluctant to speed up Serbia’s integration process: it wants co-operation from Serbia on Kosovo. And there has been very little progress on the latter point.

Most EU states have recognised an independent Kosovo. But Serbia, even under its current government, remains categorically opposed. Instead, it has effectively divided Kosovo by taking administrative control of the country’s north where much of the population are ethnic Serbs. Belgrade now finances health workers and policemen serving local Serbs in Kosovo. It is also preventing the EU rule of law mission, EULEX, from fully deploying. Tadic has hinted at wanting to improve co-operation with the EU – for example, he is sending back Serbian ambassadors to those EU countries that have recognised Kosovo (Kostunica had recalled them). But more needs to be done; Serbia needs to allow the EU police to operate in all of Kosovo. Until then, its ties with the EU, even after Karadzic’s arrest, will remain strained.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform


Anonymous said...

If former governments have been working to keep Karadzic's location a secret, they should be brought to justice also.

A state shouldn't go into the EU half-heartedly, it needs large support from the people, not just the government.

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of big problems with the article. In the first place, Tomas Valasek tries to paint the Kostunica government cooperation with the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICTY) in the Hague as a failure, but the facts don't support his conclusion. As per usual, the blame is being placed on "security forces" and secret service suposily allowed to protect the most wanted criminals. Quote" All along, security forces loyal to the Milosevic regime were allowed to protect the most wanted criminals, like Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb military." and "Right after forming a government, Tadic removed the head of secret service, who had helped protect indicted war criminals."

That's not to say it's not happening. After all, the story sounds like one that is plausible to many people. It just would have been nice to have seen a little more concrete evidence, rather than offhand conjecture reported as fact.

Karl Haudbourg
Serbia's Ambassadot to the world