Serbia: from pariah to EU member

Serbia is currently charged with genocide, under pressure to hand over General Mladic, and up for membership of the EU. What’s going on? Two authors offer their views.

Various Authors

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Rhetoric and reality over Serbia, by David Chandler

To anyone following the news this week, it would appear that Serbia is on the verge of becoming an international pariah state.

The opening of Bosnia’s case against Serbia in the International Court of Justice at The Hague means Serbia has become the first ‘entire nation’ to be tried for genocide by the world’s highest court, with billions of pounds in compensation claims alleged to be at stake. Also on Monday 27 February, the foreign ministers of the European Union threatened to abandon Serbia’s talks on EU accession unless there was full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The tribunal’s chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, has vociferously condemned the Serbian government, arguing that only full suspension of EU membership talks will force Serbia to surrender Bosnian Serb wartime commander, General Ratko Mladic, indicted for the shelling of Sarajevo and the killings at Srebrenica.

The legal proceedings against Serbia for genocide at the ICJ, which began on Monday, are unprecedented and were initiated by Bosnia in 1993, less than a year into the civil war. Within weeks, the World Court issued an interim order which ordered Yugoslavia to do all within its power to prevent the commission of genocide in Bosnia. And it also called on the two sides not to take any action that might aggravate the conflict. Now, after long delays, the case is being formally heard in a very different international context. The situation today is a far cry from when Serbia was suffering international sanctions, Milosevic was charged with war crimes, and the country was under Western bombing.

The hearings are scheduled to last for six weeks and the judges are expected to deliver their verdict in about a year. However, the importance of the ICJ judgement has been dramatically overplayed by international commentators. The court, set up after the Second World War, is designed to mediate disputes between states not to sanction them – the court has no practical means to enforce its verdicts. Even then few legal experts think that the case is likely to succeed as it would need to pass a number of complex procedural and legal hurdles (1).

Rather than at risk of being internationally isolated, beneath the rhetoric the reality is that Serbia is well on the way to EU integration, informally as well as formally. This is highlighted by the highly publicised threats to Serbia’s accession process raised by the EU ministers on Monday, which are now part and parcel of the EU negotiation of the accession process with the Balkan states. Last year, the EU delayed the start of full membership talks with Croatia, another of the former Yugoslav republics, for not doing enough to assist the ICTY (2).

The Serbian government has been dramatically transformed since the fall of the Milosevic regime in 2000. Over the past five years the European Union has given over €2billion to assisting governance reforms. Under the 2004 CARDS assistance programme the EU has seconded civil servants to work on ‘policy-development and decision-making procedures at the centre of the government’ and to work closely with the most important government ministries to prepare and implement legislation in preparations for pursuing the 90,000-page formal governance codes of the EU acquis (3).

In fact, it is the speed of informal integration and EU dominance over the policymaking process which partly explains the fact that the formal negotiating process with the Balkan states has been increasingly problematised. The EU member states are reluctant openly to clarify and expose the extent of the EU’s influence over Serbia and the Balkan region as a whole, which would expose the talk of equality for new member states and, most importantly, push policy responsibility on to the policymakers in Brussels.

At the same time as the informal process of subsuming the governance procedures and policymaking in the Balkan region, the EU is keen to maintain the fiction that the Balkan countries currently negotiating Stabilisation and Association Agreements have formal independence and are negotiating the accession process as independent states, positively being transformed by the civilising influence of the European Union. It is the discourse of war crimes that gives the EU a legitimacy which would be lost if the relationship of direct bureaucratic policy imposition was seen on its own terms. When the direct domination of the EU is highlighted – as with the EU’s diktat over the rules of the Montenegro referendum on independence – the problematic question of the legitimacy of the EU’s external regulation is raised (4).

While the right of the EU to dictate the terms of Montenegro’s independence may be seen as illegitimate external meddling, the focus on war crimes and Balkan states’ cooperation with the ICTY has the legitimacy of international law. This additional legitimacy has been regularly called on to reinforce and give meaning and purpose to the enlargement process.

The occasion for the current round of media stories around Serbia’s suitability as an EU member is not any developments in relation to the ICTY, but rather the next round of talks on accession, scheduled for 5 April. The April deadline provides the opportunity for reasserting the moral authority of the EU and demonstrating the legitimacy of the EU enlargement project. This process has led to the rhetoric moving out of step with the reality of Serbia’s integration into European structures. Good examples of this came from the EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday where the headlines were shaped by the EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn’s statement that Belgrade’s progress has fallen short of expectations, which was followed by exaggerated claims of problems with the accession process.

Nevertheless, the EU foreign ministers were fully aware that Serbia’s integration into EU structures would not be substantially affected by side issues of the ICTY. EU foreign ministers might delay the next stage of the talks (in April) if Mladic is not handed over by then, but have firmly rejected calls to suspend the talks indefinitely. The regularly threatened ‘disruption’ to the accession talks of the Balkan states has more to do with the problematic present and the EU’s desire to legitimise its regulatory role in the Balkans than with the Balkans conflicts of the past.

Get Mladic, or else!, by Tara McCormack

In the past week febrile speculation about the imminent capture or surrender of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, has swept the European media. Serbia, it seems, is at a crossroads: it must choose between its nationalist past or a European future. Or so warned the European Union (EU) Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn (1).

At the centre of the crossroads stands the figure of Ratko Mladic, alleged architect of the murder of Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. Last year Serbia began negotiations towards signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, understood to be the first step towards eventual membership. Last week Rehn warned that the failure to capture Mladic would jeopardise EU membership.

The people of Serbia could be forgiven for feeling a bit like the Bill Murray character in the film Groundhog Day. This is not the first time in recent years that Serbia has been promised an easier path to EU membership in return for divisive and unpopular domestic political decisions. In fact, the carrot of EU membership that is always being dangled in front of Serbia has the peculiar habit of remaining at the same distance.

In the immediate aftermath of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, UK prime minister Tony Blair and US President Bill Clinton urged Serbia to overthrow Milosevic and join the new Europe (2). The EU was unequivocal in the run up to the Serbian elections in late 2000: ‘a vote for democracy in Serbia will be a vote for Serbia in Europe’ (3), while Blair said the next step would be to ‘hold out the hand of partnership and friendship to a democratic Serbia and welcome her into the family of European nations’ (4).

After Milosevic was overthrown it became apparent that the European family of nations was not yet ready to welcome Serbia to its bosom. The message from the international community was clear: Serbia must next arrest and transfer Milosevic to the Hague by the end of March 2001, or, America threatened, all aid would be suspended. Milosevic was duly arrested before the deadline passed. The decision about what to do next with Milosevic threw the Yugoslav government into turmoil. Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica argued for a trial in Belgrade, while Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindic argued for Milosevic to be sent to The Hague. The international community was clear that a domestic trial would not be sufficient.

In June 2001 on the eve of a joint EU and World Bank conference for donors to Serbia, Milosevic was extradited to The Hague. This was in contravention of Serbia’s Constitutional Court which had overruled a decree passed by the government which allowed for a transfer of war crimes suspects to The Hague. US President George W Bush applauded the extradition, saying the transfer signalled, ‘the commitment of the new leadership in Belgrade to turn Yugoslavia away from its tragic past and toward a brighter future’ (5). German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also praised Yugoslavia for meeting its obligations, and suggested that it would have a beneficial effect on Yugoslavia’s economy (6).

The prospect of immediate cash and European membership clearly went to Yugoslav deputy prime minister Miroslav Labus’ head. As the Guardian reported: ‘”The Yugoslavs…have shown very dramatically how they have broken with the past” said Catherine Day, coordinating the meeting for the European Commission…“We are now fully back into the international community, politically, diplomatically and financially,” Mr Labus told reporters as the cash pledges flowed in. “We have decided to make some bold decisions… we decided to take the fast track to Europe.”’ (7)

Yet almost immediately Yugoslavia seemed to find itself once again in the slow lane. In 2002 the EU decided that it was necessary to dissolve the state of Yugoslavia and recreate a looser alignment between Serbia and Montenegro. Again the matter of EU membership was highlighted. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana warned Yugoslavia that failure to reach agreement on this new state would damage future entry to the EU (8). The agreement was signed and one of the founding states of the UN abolished.

Currently, the next round of talks about the Stabilisation and Association Agreement are scheduled to take place in April 2006. Although when the negotiations were first begun last year the situation with Mladic was the same, now the EU has warned Serbia yet again that the fate of the talks will depend upon Mladic’s arrest. Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at The Hague, has urged the EU to put more pressure on Serbia (9).

For Serbia, membership of the EU is like the jam at the Mad Hatter’s tea party – always tomorrow, never today. EU politicians can always find another demand to make of Serbia, each of which is set up as the ultimate test of Serbia’s commitment to European values.

However, the process of making successive demands upon Serbia has little intrinsically to do with transforming Serbia, which has consistently demonstrated its readiness to act compliantly with EU demands with little regard for its own laws. Rather, the international community uses the offer of membership for its own purposes – whether to boost the Hague tribunal, for example, which has been so unsuccessful in proving the case against Serbia that it has had to redefine fundamental categories such as genocide; or to bring to trial a figure who is central to the case of Srebrenica, which has proved popular for Western governments to cite in support of Western intervention.

For Serbia this kind of government by external ultimatum has had a fundamentally corrosive effect domestically. Both on the political elites, for whom the diktat of the EU matters far more then any kind of popular or democratic base; and upon the electorate, whose deep cynicism and disengagement in evidenced in the consistently low voter turnout.

With the final status of Kosovo approaching, and eventual EU membership offered yet again as a sweetener (10), the referendum in Montenegro, and this week’s launch of Bosnia’s claim for billions of dollars reparations from Serbia at the World Court on the grounds of genocide, I have a word of warning for the Serbian government. If I were you I would not start reprinting my headed stationary just yet.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Former Yugoslavia

Notes to David Chandler’s article:

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster in England. His next book Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building will be published by Pluto Press in June.

1) Analysis: Serbia in the dock, BBC News, 27 February 2006

(2) Rough Justice, EU style, by David Chandler

(3) European Commission, Serbia and Montenegro 2005 Progress Report, 9 November 2005, p.7

(4) Montenegro fights to change rules for independence vote, Guardian, 27 February 2006

Notes to Tara McCormack’s article:

(1) Radio Free Europe, 20 Jan 2005

(2) Serbs told to overthrow their leaders, Guardian, 22 June 1999

(3) EU carrot to Yugoslav voters, BBC News, 18 September 2000

(4) Western leaders welcome Kostunica, CNN, 6 October 2000

(5) Milosevic handover prompts controversy, BBC News, 29 June 2001

(6) World welcomes Milosevic handover, CNN, 2 July 2001

(7) £1bn aid rewards Serbia, Guardian, 30 June 2001

(8) Yugoslav succession talks fail, 6 September 2002

(9) EU delivers ultimatum on Mladic’s arrest to Serbia, Guardian, 24 February 2006

(10) Serbia threatens to resist Kosovo independence plan, Guardian, 20 February 2006

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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