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Serbia and Montenegro: Belgrade Gets Green Light From Brussels For Talks

Indicted war criminal Nebojsa Pavkovic is believed to be hiding in Serbia (file photo) Serbia and Montenegro is now slated to begin formal negotiations that will take it down the long road to EU membership. The decision in Brussels is one of several signs that many do not want a Balkan "black hole" to emerge on the European map.

The European Commission recommended on 12 April that the EU begin talks with Serbia and Montenegro on preparing a Stabilization and Association Agreement for that country. The negotiations could begin later in 2005 and last about one year. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said that "this is the beginning of the European road for Serbia and Montenegro. The country has achieved a great deal over the past few years and it is time to move on."

Turning to the main issue that has held up Belgrade's integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, namely Serbia's failure to arrest and extradite people indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, Rehn argued that "Serbia and Montenegro has finally made significant progress in cooperating with the Hague tribunal," having encouraged about a dozen indictees to turn themselves since the start of 2005.
"We are now on the ground floor of the building, and it depends on us alone when we will get to the top floor [of full EU membership]...and whether we will slowly take the stairs or use the elevator."

But some commentators suggested that NATO, for its part, is still unlikely to admit Belgrade to its Partnership for Peace program until all indictees are in The Hague. Former Bosnian Serb commander General Ratko Mladic and former Serbian commander in Kosova General Nebojsa Pavkovic are still at large (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 15 February, and 5, 6, 11, and 12 April 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 November 2004). In Brussels, Rehn denied charges that the EU is using different standards for Serbia than for Croatia, whose final leg on the road to EU membership is blocked by Zagreb's failure to find and arrest fugitive war crimes indictee and former General Ante Gotovina. The commissioner said that requirements are tougher for obtaining full EU membership than they are for starting Stabilization and Association Agreement talks.

Turning to regional matters, Rehn noted that "this feasibility study [about starting talks] is a positive signal at a critical moment when we need to engage Belgrade in constructive discussions on the future status of Kosovo. The progress of Serbia and Montenegro will help to stabilize the region and work for the security of all of Europe."

Montenegro's policies have generally not been an issue in the joint state's pursuit of Euro-Atlantic integration. Croatia is the farthest advanced of the five western Balkan countries in a bid for EU membership but is held up primarily by the Gotovina issue (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005). Albania began negotiations for a Stabilization and Association Agreement over one year ago but has made little progress (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 November 2002, 26 May 2004, and 2 February 2005). Macedonia has formally applied for EU membership but many in Brussels consider the move premature (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 October 2004 and 25 February 2005). Bosnia-Herzegovina has yet to start talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement but a feasibility study, like the latest one for Belgrade, has already called for talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005).

The results of the European Commission's feasibility study regarding Serbia and Montenegro was received in Belgrade "with satisfaction but without euphoria," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The joint state's foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, said that "we are now on the ground floor of the building, and it depends on us alone when we will get to the top floor [of full EU membership]...and whether we will slowly take the stairs or use the elevator."

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that "we have arrived at the European road that will take us to EU membership." He noted that this path will not be easy but stressed that Serbia is up to the task. "I am convinced that we as a state have enough strength and work together to protect Kosovo and Metohija, to strengthen the joint state [of Serbia and Montenegro], to work for the fastest possible membership in the EU, [and to develop]...our political and economic system," Kostunica added. He argued that "Serbian citizens are unreservedly oriented toward the EU...and we regard the EU as our common home." Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said that the feasibility study will lead to quicker and better access for Serbian goods to EU markets.

Montenegrin leaders also welcomed the news from Brussels. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said that he was pleased and is optimistic about the path ahead. President Filip Vujanovic expressed similar views, adding that the study does not stand in the way of transforming the joint state into the "union of independent states" that the Montenegrin leadership wants (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 February 2005).

While much attention was focused on Brussels and Belgrade, Serbian President Boris Tadic said on 12 April that he plans to invite Kosovar President Ibrahim Rugova to talks in the Serbian capital as a prelude to the multilateral negotiations on Kosova's final status that are widely expected to start later in 2005. But in Prishtina, Rugova adviser Muhamet Hamiti said that "there can be no direct political talks with Belgrade." If there is eventually an international meeting to finalize the issue of Kosova's independence, neighbors can take part but without a right to veto," Hamiti added.

Tadic's move more likely reflects his flair for public relations with Western policy makers rather than a serious overture to Rugova. Belgrade and Prishtina have held sporadic talks in recent years under international mediation on technical but not on political issues. All Kosovar Albanian political parties support independence based on self-determination and majority rule, arguing that Serbia lost any right to the province by its "ethnic cleansing" policies there in 1998-99. Tadic recently paid a controversial visit to Serbian enclaves in Kosova but did not meet any ethnic Albanian officials (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 18 February 2005).