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Serbia woos the EU

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

“Frankly,” Dugolli said, “I’m wondering what message it sends if a country softens a position on a problem it created in the first place.” He expressed disappointment that the EU often fails to challenge Belgrade when, for example, Serb representatives refuse to attend functions, including EU ones, where Kosovo officials are present. “We don’t see reason for any euphoria,” Dugolli said. “We still don’t see a significant change in Serbia’s attitude.”

At the same time, Dugolli said he hoped the active involvement of the EU as a mediator in the envisioned talks between Belgrade and Pristina would improve their chances for success. The resignation of Kosovo’s government and new elections planned for Dec. 12 mean that prospect is unlikely to be tested as soon as was envisioned.

But the current Serb leadership does deserve some kudos for making clear breaks with the bloody past and most of the credit can be given to one man: the unswervingly pro-EU Serbian President Boris Tadic. Though Tadic maintains that Serbia will never accept Kosovo’s sovereignty, his government this week apologized for crimes committed by Belgrade against Croatia, having made a similar apology to Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this year. Last month U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clasped his hand and praised his vision, leadership and “commitment to protect the human rights of all the citizens of your country.”

And Tadic has been rewarded for his regard for the EU. The bloc has twice before adjusted pre-accession steps to support Tadic. Before his tough re-election campaign in 2008 against an ultranationalist opponent, the EU tried to rush through a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a special cooperative agreement for Balkan countries in pre-accession phases. The Dutch blocked the agreement, but a replacement deal was passed in time for the second-round vote. A few months later, when Tadic needed a boost for his Democratic Party in parliamentary elections, the agreement was pushed through. Tadic rushed to an EU meeting in Luxembourg for a signature and champagne-toast photo op.

Serbia next holds parliamentary elections in June 2012 and again there is the danger that nationalist forces could unseat Tadic’s pro-European allies. The European Commission will now have just enough time before that vote to complete its assessment and, conceivably, offer Serbia membership.

Within that time, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz will also issue two reports on whether Serb authorities are cooperating with the court to their maximum ability. Putting Mladic behind bars would be the most visible sign of such cooperation.

Doug Saunders, the Europe bureau chief for the Toronto Globe and Mail and a longtime chronicler of Balkan developments, is an admirer of the Serbian president’s accomplishments and has blunt advice for the EU: Drop the Mladic arrest as a precondition for membership. He said that while it is important it should not determine the country’s future.

“We have a government and a president that have made atonement their mission, that have apologized for their country’s role in Srebenica, that have allowed Kosovo to secede” as much as possible under Serbian social and political conditions, Saunders said. “If Tadic’s Democrats were to lose the next election to radicals as a result of the EU’s unnecessary obstacles, then Europe would have itself to blame for the consequences.”

For now, the EU is still hoping it won’t have to choose between Tadic and Mladic.