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Serbia woos the EU

While EU foreign ministers lower the bar for the Serbs to begin the membership process.

Supporters of Partizan Belgrade hold placards displaying hearts during their team's UEFA Champions League Group H football match against Braga at the Partizan Stadium in Belgrade on Nov. 3, 2010. Partizan was defeated 0-1. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The Serbian government seems finally to be getting serious about capturing war-crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.

The European Union, on the other hand, seems to be getting less serious about it.

In Belgrade, this week saw a new round of raids in and around the city seeking the former leader of the Bosnian Serb military, who has been charged with genocide for his alleged role in the killing of 8,000 men and boys in Srebenica. In addition, the Serbian government escalated the reward for Mladic — who has been in hiding since his 1995 indictment by the United Nations’ tribunal in the Hague — from a longstanding $1.4 million to $10 million.

But in Luxembourg last week, EU foreign ministers spent much of the time devoted to the question of Serbia lobbying their Dutch colleague to drop his country’s refusal to move ahead with Serbia’s accession negotiations before Mladic and fellow indictee Goran Hadzic, the former leader of Croatian Serbs, are apprehended.

By agreement of all 27 members, launching Serbia’s accession negotiations had long been contingent on the arrests and other forms of cooperation with the tribunal. Now, under pressure from the other member states and promised the right of a veto down the road, even the Netherlands acquiesced to allowing Serbia’s “referral” to the European Commission, the first formal step toward membership.

This kicks off a process in which the commission spends about a year assessing and assisting in Serbia’s readiness to join. The foreign ministers’ pronouncement that further steps will only be possible when all 27 members agree that Belgrade is doing all it can for the tribunal pacified the Dutch and allowed the other 26 governments to still pay lip-service to the U.N. tribunal.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), for one, is not willing to overlook the missing Mladic.

HRW’s EU director Lotte Leicht said the handling of the Serbian dossier will reveal “how committed the EU is to its own words, but more importantly, how committed [it] is to secure justice for genocide and crimes against humanity that were carried out in the heart of Europe only 15 years ago.”

HRW wrote to EU leaders before the Luxembourg decision, fruitlessly urging foreign ministers not to make the commission referral without further review of the tribunal prosecutor’s less-than-glowing assessment of Belgrade’s cooperation. Now, Leicht said, the decline in pressure could make it even less likely that Mladic and Hadzic will ever face trial. And that, she warned, would make it “very very hard for the EU to be a credible force for justice elsewhere in the world.”

Another country is laser-focused on how the EU finesses the Serbia question: Kosovo. The former Serbian province declared independence two years ago, a move Belgrade says it will never accept. Since five of the 27 EU members also have declined to recognize Kosovo, Brussels has not made recognition a requirement for Serbia’s membership but says it will keep an eye on Serbia’s treatment of its new neighbor.

At first, things didn’t look good. Serbia’s initial rejection of an International Court of Justice ruling in July that Kosovo’s independence was not “illegal” threw the EU into a tizzy. Intensive mediation by High Representative Catherine Ashton and EU governments convinced the Serbs to soften a planned U.N. resolution condemning Kosovo’s actions, a “compromise” that won Belgrade acclaim from both Europe and the U.S.

Serbia later committed to open talks with Kosovo for the first time, cause for further relief in Brussels, along with some reward. Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, in the seat of the EU’s rotating presidency, said “this positive and constructive attitude” clearly contributed to the decision to move ahead with accession.

But Kosovo’s ambassador to the EU, Ilir Dugolli, was less impressed.