Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -
Ahead of general elections in Serbia next spring, the jockeying for votes and possible coalition partners has commenced in earnest.
With the current governing coalition having made accession to the EU a key plank of its political platform, securing candidate status this year was seen as critical to their re-election hopes. Prior to the last elections in 2008, the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU - followed almost immediately by Fiat's announcement of sizeable automobile investments - gave the Democratic Party of current Serbian president, Boris Tadic, an important electoral boost.
Despite apprehending the last remaining war crimes suspects - Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic - Serbia's European path remains beset by obstacles, particularly those related to the now independent Kosovo. With the European Commission set to issue its opinion on Serbia's candidacy bid in October, the diplomatic battles have intensified.
As part of this offensive, Bozidar Delic, Serbia's deputy prime minister for European integration, initiated the inaugural Serbia-EU Forum, entitled: "Overcoming the crisis, moving towards the European Union", which was attended by, amongst others, the president of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, and the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. Aside from reiterating commitments to the European goal, the Forum explored a variety of topics - from smart to inclusive growth, organised crime and corruption.
As Ana Babovic, head of the European integration and development department within Delic's office, tells bne, "Serbia-EU Forum comes at a turning point of the process of Serbia's EU integration. It is significant that the first meeting of this kind, at the highest level, is held in Belgrade only a month before the publication of the European Commission opinion on Serbia's candidacy for membership in the EU."
Kosovo creeps up
Whilst Tadic reiterated his belief that Serbia had fulfilled all the necessary requirements for candidacy and should not face additional conditions not imposed on other countries pursuing membership, van Rompuy stated that relations between Belgrade and Pristina would be one of the considerations. The EU - nauseatingly referred to as a "fruit salad" and a "monastery" by certain speakers - is unwilling to incorporate any more conflicts over territory. Kosovo, therefore, remains the biggest stumbling block, particularly in light of recent skirmishes in the north of the newly-declared country that Serbia refuses to recognise. Though the Serbian government has long insisted upon a policy of both Kosovo and the EU, the inherent contradictions of this stance have been laid bare.
During a recent visit to Belgrade, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, called upon Serbia to normalise its relations with Kosovo, allow Eulex - a deployment of EU police and civilian resources to Kosovo - to work throughout Kosovo (its work in the north is currently inhibited) and to abolish parallel structures.
According to Jelena Milic, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade, whether Serbia can secure candidate status will "depend on developments in the next few weeks". In Milic's view, "If Serbia plays it low key on Eulex, the Kosovo Police Service (KPS) and Kosovo customs officers and customs stamps, than it can help the Democratic Party and other pro-EU voices in the general elections. If not, unfortunately, the EU candidacy cookie will be wasted for nothing, which is bad news for Serbia."
Whilst failing to secure candidate status will, in Milic's opinion, "mostly re-energise the Democratic Party's campaign", it will not have much impact on the general public who "hardly connect Serbia's EU progress and their quality of their lives, as they are not particularly interested in good legislation as they are in their current salary."
Milic insists that "with a formal process, EU guidance and funds, Serbia cannot reform on its own as some, such as foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, have recently suggested. A number of challenges remain, including the need to adopt laws on public properties and restitution and complete reform of the judiciary, whilst Serbia must also investigate the assistance given to Mladic and others who managed to remain at large for so long"
With Serbia's main political parties - including the Serbian Progressive Party of Tomislav Nikolic - largely agreed on Serbia's European course, economic issues are likely to dominate the forthcoming election campaign. Serbia - which recently reached an agreement with the IMF on a €1b standby loan - is projecting lower than expected growth for 2011 and 2012 of 2% and 3%, respectively. Unemployment remains a major problem.
Whether or not Serbia secures candidate status before the end of 2011, its European course will remain the prime goal of its domestic and foreign policy. As Egemen BagÄ±s, Turkey's minister for EU affairs and its chief membership negotiator, aptly remarked, though the EU is like a dietician who fails to obey its own prescription, it is still the best prescription available. For Serbia to shed the horror of the 1990s, it must continue to follow what the EU says, if not what the EU does.
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