Dominic Swire in Prague -
News that the Serbian authorities had arrested war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic on July 21 was evidence of the seismic changes that have taken place in the country this year as the pro-EU coalition led by President Boris Tadic presses on with its join the EU as soon as possible. Yet while Karadzic's arrest has given Belgrade's EU bid a major boost, it may not be enough to persuade the Dutch to ratify the country's Stabilisation and Association Agreement, a prelude to membership talks.
Almost every aspect of the capture of Karadzic, one of the world's most wanted men, in Serbia was completely unexpected. The arrest was reportedly made on a bus in Belgrade after it was discovered he was working as a spiritual healer, giving public lectures that claimed he could help people live until 130. "Everyone was surprised, it came like a bolt from the blue. No one was expecting it," remarked James Lyon from the International Crisis Group.
But perhaps most surprising was the fact that, after 10 years on the run, the arrest happened at all. Lyon said that because the government was so new and the head of the secret police had only been appointed just days before, nobody knew what security institutions could be used to carry out the operation.
The news was received warmly by the EU and US. The EU foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, said: "This news gives us immense satisfaction. The new government in Belgrade stands for a new Serbia, for a new quality of relations with the EU." Washington adopted a similar tone, with a statement from the White House reading: "We congratulate the government of Serbia, and thank the people who conducted this operation for their professionalism and courage."
Of most immediate concern to Belgrade was the reaction of the Dutch government, as the Netherlands together with Belgium are the only EU members yet to ratify Serbia's SAA, a necessary step for Belgrade's bid to join the EU to progress. The Dutch have been holding out because of Serbia's lack of cooperation in the hunt to find the remaining war crimes fugitives still at large. A statement from The Hague read that the Dutch government was "delighted" at the news of Karadzic's arrest and that "Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is 'very happy'." Foreign affairs minister Maxime Verhagen added that Karadzic's arrest was "of incalculable importance for his victims and their families."
However, the statement went on to say, "more will have to be done to ensure for full cooperation with the [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia]. The Netherlands will continue to urge the extradition of Ratko Mladic, chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army, and Goran HadÅ¾ic, former president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina. And it will also call for a programme to protect witnesses."
The Dutch are particularly concerned with the capture of the remaining war fugitives, because it feels partially responsible for the tragedy of Srebrenica when thousands of Muslim men and boys were handed over to Serb forces and murdered despite the area being designated a UN safe haven and protected by Dutch troops. The total number of those massacred is estimated at around 8,000.
Reports say that the arrest of Karadzic actually came about after police had been following a lead on the trail of Ratko Mladic. Sharon Fisher, a Washington-based analyst with international forecasters Global Insight, says it must only be a matter of time before he is brought to book. "The fact that Karadzic's arrest occurred so soon after [nationalist prime minister Vojislav Kostunica] left the post signals that the new government is serious about cooperation with Brussels, indicating that the arrest of Mladic may also take place in the near future."
Others aren't so sure. Of all three fugitives, Mladic is believed to be the biggest catch and arresting him would almost certainly see the Dutch government soften its stance on Serbia. However, Lyon warns that this may be easier said than done. "There are indications that it may be little more difficult to get Mladic," says Lyon. "Mladic is viewed as a genuine war hero, whereas for many Serbs in Serbia, Karadzic is just a provincial politician prone to being rather flamboyant and buffoonish. Karadzic's arrest doesn't necessarily mean the other two are going to find their way to The Hague any time soon."
And then there's a mounting feeling of enlargement fatigue in several quarters of the EU. On July 23, the European Commission issued an excoriating report on efforts by Romania and, especially, Bulgaria to curb corruption, evidence, say some, that these two Balkan countries were let into the club too early.
Nevertheless, Brussels is now likely to pressure the Dutch to show some recognition of the new Serbian government's efforts. Fisher certainly believes this is the way forward. "The new Serbian government should be rewarded for its cooperation. If the SAA were ratified without the additional arrests, there are still plenty of other milestones in the EU accession process that can be used to pressure Serbia. For one, the EU could require that the arrests take place before giving Serbia candidate status."
Whether Brussels is able to influence the Netherlands' stance on this sensitive issue remains to be seen. What is clear is that Serbia's new government is now producing pro-EU actions as well as words.
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