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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Serbia > Serbia: Spinning its Wheels

Serbia: Spinning its Wheels

Europe Briefing N°39 23 May 2005


Serbia has used the first months of 2005 to good effect, instituting a major policy change on cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY) and sending signals that it is somewhat more willing to engage both the international community and Kosovo Albanians in dialogue about that province's status. This has paid off. Instead of the renewed isolation that threatened at the start of the year, it has received a green light from the European Union (EU) to begin negotiations on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement -- a significant if early step toward membership. Nevertheless, in other important areas, Belgrade's policies have been regressive. This "one step forward, one step backward" dichotomy means continued international pressure will be needed to ensure that reforms stick and real progress occurs.

The policy about-face on the ICTY, which involved "voluntary" decisions (under a good deal of government pressure) by a number of generals to turn themselves in for trial, is the best demonstration yet that coordinated and sustained EU-U.S conditionality policies can work. The U.S. had begun to reduce aid, and the EU had made it clear there would be no movement toward membership unless Belgrade began to cooperate with the Tribunal. The changes, however, are fragile and not self-sustaining. Cooperation with the ICTY has improved but remains superficial, while domestic efforts on war crimes trials are feeble.

Overall, the government of Premier Vojislav Kostunica still appears intent on rehabilitating significant portions of the Milosevic legacy by appointing Milosevic era personnel in the police, judiciary and military and by using the Djindjic assassination trial to attack pro-Western policies and politicians. Until it faces up to the real meaning of that legacy, its relations with other parts of the one-time Yugoslav state and the stability of the Western Balkans will be uncertain and Serbia will not be able to create stable relationships with its neighbours.

On a range of technical issues that are vitally important to potential integration with Europe, Serbia has been regressing since the Kostunica government came to power in March 2004. In particular, there has been essentially no reform of the judiciary, which appears to be increasingly politicised, and of the police and military, both of which remain beyond democratic, civilian control. The draft of the new constitution threatens to move Serbia further away from Europe. The only real reforms to date are economic and have originated from the ministries controlled by the G17+ party, the most liberal member of a minority government that depends for survival upon the silent partnership of parties that are still loyal to Milosevic and his fellow ICTY detainee, the extreme nationalist Vojislav Seselj. Strong, coordinated international pressure will be necessary to prevent further backsliding.

Belgrade/Brussels, 23 May 2005

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