BELGRADE (Reuters) -- The chief UN war crimes prosecutor is visiting Serbia to assess whether it deserves to move towards European Union membership, a prospect brought closer by the arrest of top fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
It is Serge Brammertz's first trip to Belgrade since the July arrest of genocide suspect Karadzic, a breakthrough in Serbia's cooperation with The Hague war crimes court after years of patchy progress.
"We have never been in a better position," said Rasim Ljajic, Serbia's point man for cooperation with The Hague. "For the first time we don't need to fear the report."
Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, was arrested in Belgrade after more than a decade on the run, in a development seen as an unexpected success for the two-month-old government.
The coalition of pro-Western Democrats with the Socialists of late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic says EU membership is a top priority. It must attract investment to revive the economy and deliver on generous welfare promises.
Serbia had hoped the arrest would prompt the EU immediately to unfreeze benefits from a premembership Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) signed in April and ratified on September 9. But the 27-nation bloc wants Brammertz's nod on whether the country is doing enough to arrest two remaining fugitives.
U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Cameron Munter told Reuters Brammertz was not required to speak out immediately on the issue and could hold back for months.
The Hunt For Mladic
Former Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic is wanted on the same genocide charges as Karadzic, and Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic is indicted for crimes against humanity.
Diplomats say most EU member states want Serbia to move ahead on the EU path for the sake of stability in the Balkans. But the Netherlands, where The Hague tribunal is based, insists on the arrest of Mladic and Hadzic before agreeing to release the SAA benefits.
If Brammertz gives a positive report and there is consensus in Brussels, a formal move by the EU on the SAA perks could come as early as an EU foreign ministers' meeting on September 15.
Karadzic's arrest triggered only minor public protests in Belgrade, but public opposition to Mladic's arrest could be stronger. Some see him as a defender of the Serbian nation.
"Karadzic was a politician and people don't like politicians," said Miroljub Labus, a former deputy prime minister. "But Mladic was a soldier and they like soldiers."
Many Serbs believe The Hague war crimes court is biased against them.
Under increasing diplomatic pressure, the government appears willing to risk some short-term public grumbling. "We are working very hard [to find him,]" Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said in Stockholm September 9.
"The moment General Mladic is located he will be handed over to The Hague."