BELGRADE/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - When Serbia arrested Bosnia Serb wartime General Ratko Mladic in May, Muslim survivors of the 1992-95 war celebrated and his ethnic Serb supporters expressed outrage at the treatment of a man they considered a hero.
The arrest of the Croat Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic on Wednesday provoked a far less dramatic reaction, but is key for the European Union future of Serbia as it removes the shadow of war crimes that has plagued Belgrade’s membership bid.
“I will be looking our European counterparts in the eye and seeing whether they make good on what they have promised,” Serbian President Boris Tadic told reporters, spelling out Belgrade’s expectations of quick progress from now on.
Serbia hopes bringing Hadzic — the last remaining fugitive sought by the United Nations war crimes tribunal — to justice will be enough to persuade the EU executive that it is ready to launch EU accession talks.
Once started, negotiations will likely take years. But until now, the baggage of its role in the 1990s war that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia kept Serbia behind many of its regional peers, all of whom aspire to membership.
Wartime foe Croatia is expected to become an EU member in 2013, while Serbia still does not have even candidate status, putting it behind Montenegro and Macedonia in line for entry.
Tadic acknowledged that dealing with the wartime past was only one of the conditions set by the EU before it agrees to discuss the details of accession.
But he expressed hope for progress by the time the European Commission releases its annual report on countries aspiring to join in October and announces the next steps they can take.
“It will not be an easy feat, as (gaining) candidate status and a date for accession talks are related with internal reforms,” said the pro-European politician. “I believe it is possible to achieve good results by September.”
EU diplomats say Belgrade may have done enough already in terms of necessary democratic and market reforms to qualify for an official start of accession talks.
With Hadzic on his way to court, one of the few remaining question marks may be how EU governments will judge the progress Belgrade is making in relations with Kosovo, whose declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008 it does not recognize.
Effective regional cooperation is an important factor in EU evaluations of potential candidates. The bloc has been burned in the past by admitting Cyprus, which now blocks the aspirations of Turkey because of a dispute over the divided island.
Many EU governments are also wary of expansion at a time when issues ranging from economic woes to immigration have hampered the bloc’s ability to make decisions.
Earlier this month, Serbia appeared to make headway with Kosovo, striking a handful of breakthrough deals to fix practical issues crucial to the latter’s daily existence.
But talks suffered a setback on Tuesday, when Serbia refused to budge on the issue of customs stamps and a round of discussions was postponed until September without progress. Kosovo said on Wednesday it would ban all products from Serbia.
“As of yesterday morning EU mediators thought it would happen, but the Serbs were unwilling to move so they thought better to cancel,” one EU diplomat close to talks said.
The Netherlands, an EU member which in the past has pushed its peers to take Serbia’s EU integration slowly because of its failure to capture fugitives, gave a positive signal, hailing the arrest of Hadzic.
“Serbia has acted according to its responsibility,” Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal said. “This marks an important step on the path to further regional reconciliation.”
Many Serbs feel the international community has unfairly singled out their wartime leaders to face prosecution in the Hague. At the same time many citizens of the Balkan country are reluctant to come to terms with wartime killings of other nationalities in their name.
Perhaps the most significant boost to Serbia’s image this year came not from the arrest of the final war crimes suspects who have played no role in public life for many years, but on the tennis courts of the professional circuit.
The Wimbledon title victory earlier this month of Novak Djokovic, who was just four when the Yugoslav wars began, has given the Balkan country a positive role model who was greeted in heroic terms upon his return to Belgrade.
Some even see Djokovic’s victory as helping Tadic, whose popularity in polls has grown of late after trailing far behind the reformed nationalist opposition ahead of elections next year. “I can think of no other reason for his increase in popularity,” said one diplomat.
In his news conference, Tadic acknowledged it will still be difficult to win EU membership given the serious economic woes in the bloc.
“A crisis is never a good time for the enlargement process,” Tadic told reporters. “I think it would be a tragic mistake to halt the integration process as that would hamper stability in the Balkans.”
Additional reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade; editing by Philippa Fletcher