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Setbacks on the road to Brussels
Renewed questions over the Balkans' future in the European Union
“SERBIA'S European future is under threat,” said Vuk Draskovic, the country's foreign minister, on April 28th. He was referring to the European Union deadline for the arrest of Ratko Mladic—the Bosnian Serb general who tops the wanted list at the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague—which expired two days later with Mr Mladic still at large. The deadline was originally the end of March, but was extended after promises by Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, to both the tribunal and to Olli Rehn, the EU enlargement commissioner. On May 3rd, Mr Rehn called off talks with Serbia. The gloom deepened when Miroljub Labus, Serbia's top negotiator with the EU, resigned, deploring his country's breach of promise. That may cripple the government and even lead to a new election.
The called-off talks are about a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, the first step towards EU entry. If Mr Mladic happens to be caught, even hours before May 11th, when the next round of talks had been scheduled, it is almost certain that they will go ahead after all. Yet few will dispute Mr Draskovic's assessment. And it is not just in Belgrade and Brussels that officials are fretting about Serbia. Alarms are sounding in Washington too.
In all the main western capitals, diplomats were until recently comparing notes over how to thank Serbia if it co-operates, both over Mr Mladic and over the future of Kosovo, which is supposed to be decided this year. Among the rewards mooted for handing over the general would be Serbia's admission to the Partnership for Peace, NATO's military-aid programme. As a sweetener for Serbian acquiescence in Kosovo's independence, plans had been drawn up to guarantee the status and property of the province's monasteries. Now the diplomatic talk is not about thanking Serbia, but about limiting the damage from a potential fiasco.
Why won't Mr Kostunica deliver Mr Mladic? The prime minister says he cannot find him. Some think he is reluctant to go after a man whom many Serbs see as a hero. And the stubborn, reputedly ill general will not surrender. A grim poll also shows that Serbia's best-liked political group is now the extreme pro-Mladic Radical party, with a 38% rating.
Also concentrating minds is a May 21st referendum in which Montenegrins will decide whether their tiny state should be independent, or stay linked to Serbia. If Serbia's European hopes were boosted by a Mladic handover, it would be a fillip for the pro-Serbian camp in Montenegro. The dashing of those hopes will give the anti-Serbian side new arguments. Indeed, some wonder if Mr Kostunica may be keeping Mr Mladic back to arrest him just in time to affect the poll.
But whatever the Montenegrins decide, western diplomats are reconsidering ideas that have underpinned their thinking about the Balkans—including the premise that, if countries behave well, they can join the EU. This year, negative signals have been sent by French and German politicians, warning Balkan states not to count on their ultimate admission to the EU, even though they were promised as much in 2003. The effects of western Europe's flagging interest in the region are being felt. On April 26th, Bosnia's parliament failed to ratify constitutional changes that would be needed in order to join the EU.
Next spring, the office of High Representative, a kind of international governor for Bosnia, is due to be abolished, to be replaced by a gentler kind of persuasion, known in Brussels as “conditionality”. But unless the EU can deliver on its promises, that persuasion will not be very effective. In Washington, meanwhile, there are worries about the effects on the whole region of Kosovo's looming independence. As one American official says, setting Kosovo free while letting the Radicals take Serbia back into embittered isolation would hardly add up to a great success.