The EU will want more from Serbia than arrests

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

While the arrest of accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic on 21 July could signal the beginning of Serbia’s reconciliation with its role in the Western Balkan wars of the 1990s, Kosovo could still prove a stumbling block for further EU negotiations, argues Tomas Valasek in a 25 July commentary for the Centre for European Reform.

Valasek says, in the past, Belgrade tended to arrest “smaller fish” just before EU summits in a bid to show it was cooperating with the International War Crimes Tribunal (ICTY). This allowed successive Serbian governments to allege compliance with The Hague, without dealing with its own 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,” he asserts. 

According to the author there are two schools of thought on why Karadzic was arrested at this point in time. But both, he says, “assume that Serbia has known for a while that Karadzic had been hiding on its territory,” and “both acknowledge that Serbia’s co-operation with the Hague Tribunal has been half-hearted of late.” 

The first school of thought sees Karadzic’s arrest as a “half-hearted attempt to improve Serbia’s image and win kudos with the EU,” he claims. The second, which the author thinks is more plausible, is that the domestic political situation played a central part in the arrest. 

He explains that the national elections in May brought in the most pro-EU government Serbia has seen for a long time and that this government has taken a much stronger grip on the security institutions in the country. President Tadi? removed the head of the secret service – “who had helped protect indicted war criminals” – soon after regaining power and only two days later Karadzic was arrested, he reveals. 

Valasek believes it is only a matter of time before Ratko Mladi? is arrested as well. 

Indeed, during his campaign Tadic had promised to increase living standards in Serbia and push it closer to the EU in the hope of attracting foreign investment, claims Valasek. However, the chain of reaction of “no arrests, no EU integration, no foreign investment, no economic recovery,” gave Tadic strong domestic reasons to arrest Karadzic. The author believes Tadic “rightly calculated that the Serbian public would support him,” pointing to the fact that there were “precious few demonstrators” after the arrest. As a result, claims Valasek, “the nationalist opposition look out of touch.” 

He believes Tadic’s search for war criminals is authentic as it will ultimately strengthen his domestic standing as well as Serbia’s standing towards the EU. However, he firmly attests that “Kosovo will continue to plague the Brussels-Belgrade relationship.” 

Kosovo is an issue even the current pro-EU government will not give up on, says Valasek. It has already “effectively divided Kosovo” along ethnic lines by taking control of the largely ethnic Serb north. Serbs are also “preventing EULEX [the EU’s rule of law mission to Kosovo] from fully deploying,” he adds. 

Despite Tadic signalling a warming of relations with the EU – as highlighted by the recent reinstatement of Serbian ambassadors to EU countries – “more needs to be done”, says Valasek. 

“Serbia needs to allow the EU police to operate in all of Kosovo,” concludes Valasek, because until it does so relations with the EU “will remain strained.” 

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