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Serbia: So Close, Yet So Far For Belgrade's EU Dreams

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic at a press conference in Brussels earlier this year (epa) BRUSSELS -- The European Union is racing against time -- and some of its own member states -- to create incentives for Serbian voters to choose a Western future when they go to the polls for parliamentary elections on May 11.

The EU, whose image was tarnished in the eyes of many Serbs when most members backed Kosovo's independence, is dangling the prospect of future membership to Serbia. But Brussels is struggling to give the offer a definitive shape.

The main problems boil down to two names and one abbreviation -- Kosovo, Mladic, and an SAA.

The EU is asking Serbia to forget Kosovo and to deliver war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic. In return, Brussels is offering to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Belgrade and to begin talks on abolishing EU visas for Serbian citizens.

But there may not be enough time for all of this before parliamentary elections on May 11. Addressing the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee on April 7, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana urged everyone in the bloc to be welcoming.

"We have to make all the effort to extend our hand to the Serbian people, to continue telling them clearly -- not only with words but with facts -- that we want them to be a part of the European family of nations," Solana said.

Wish List

The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Oliver Dulic, who was in Brussels last week, handed the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee a detailed wish list. The pro-European politicians whom Dulic represents want the EU to sign an SAA with Serbia by the end of this month, give it candidate status by the end of the year, ease visa restrictions by early 2009, and launch accession talks with Serbia in the second half of 2009.

Dulic says such tangible offers could sway Serbian voters on May 11. He said the EU must err on the side of generosity, if anything, to compensate for a feeling in Serbia that the country is always fated to get the sharp end of the stick.

"We need the EU to put tangible content into the phrase 'EU integration,' content that will be both realistic and attractive to our citizens," Dulic said. "We applaud EU leaders repeating that citizens of Serbia have their place in the EU family, but this is simply not enough, especially now when the nationalists point out that the EU is treating Serbia differently from any other postcommunist country."

Solana and EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn agree, to a point. Both say they work day and night to deliver an SAA and a "road map" to a visa deal.

No EU Consensus

But there are problems -- and not in Belgrade so much as in some EU capitals. The Netherlands wields a veto over the SAA. It refuses to allow the EU to sign the agreement with Serbia before it delivers Mladic, who commanded Bosnian Serb troops who killed up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Belgium also has misgivings.

In addition, a number of member states are wary about handing Serbia an easy visa deal. Immigration pressure and the threat of terrorism have caused the EU to up the ante for countries wanting to ease their visa regimes with the bloc. Dulic complained last week that the conditions being imposed on Serbia are tougher than those faced by other countries. And there was some sympathy among his audience. Elmar Brok, a senior German deputy, noted that Serbia is faced with a "painful historical irony," given that Yugoslav citizens were free to travel in Europe during the Cold War.

In the short term, however, signing the SAA appears to be the most tangible reward the EU has to offer.

Solana said on April 7 he had addressed the Dutch parliament on the issue. He made another impassioned appeal at the European Parliament, arguing that the Dutch wish to see Mladic in court may be thwarted forever should anti-EU nationalists come to power in Serbia.

"My appeal is for everybody to think about [this]: those -- who are many, all of us -- who do want cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal, who would like to have Mladic in front of the international community, having a fair trial. They know very well that at the end of the day if [Tomislav] Nikolic wins the elections, [that] will never take place," Solana said.

Solana said Serbia was in an "exceptional situation," adding it needs "exceptional solutions."

Dulic issued a similar warning last week, saying Mladic and other war crimes suspects might well "die free men" if pro-European forces lose the May 11 elections.

Dulic argues that, because the SAA is a technical agreement with little political content, linking it to the handover of war criminals makes little sense. He also points out that Croatia, an EU-candidate country, was allowed to sign its SAA with its most notorious suspect, Ante Gotovina, still on the loose.

Kosovo Bug

But the EU's biggest problem is that it is able to engage in dialogue with only one part of Serbia's political spectrum -- a part, moreover, whose relative strength it cannot gauge with any reliability.

Nationalist elements, meanwhile, reject cooperation with the EU as long as it is seen as favoring Kosovo's independence and gives support to authorities in Pristina.

And even many relative moderates are in stark opposition to the West on the issue of Kosovo. Dulic, for example, used his address at the European Parliament to say that Kosovo's independence was "deeply illegal."

Perhaps the best that Serbia's pro-European forces can do under the circumstances would be to say in unison with Dulic that they consider integration with the EU "as important as Kosovo."

Events in and around Kosovo may yet overwhelm the EU's cautious attempts to reach out to Serbia. Solana said the crucial test for the relationship will come between the May 11 elections and June 15 -- when Kosovo's first constitution is expected to come into force.