The diplomatic maneuvering over Serbia’s upcoming election got a little more interesting today. It has emerged that the EU is considering signing an ‘interim pact on trade and cooperation’ with Serbia before the February 3 presidential election.
The move is an attempt to give a boost to the pro-Europe incumbent, Boris Tadic. It is also a first step in granting concesions to Serbia (toward its entrance into the EU) in exchange for it allowing the breakaway republic of Kosovo to declare independence.
This type of interim pact would normally not go into force until the EU signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Belgrade, but such an agreement requires the signature of all 27 member countries and the Netherlands and Belgium have refused to sign it unless Serbia hands over a war crimes suspect, former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, charged with genocide for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims. Serbia has refused to do so.
An EU diplomat told Reuters that the EU may choose a backdoor route by giving Serbia the interim agreement, in order to boost the position of Tadic. The EU is terrified that ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who wants to cut ties with Europe and build closer ties with Russia, will win the presidency. Nikolic took a five-point lead in last Sunday's first round.
In reality the presidency has little power, but the symbolism of a Nikolic win would be a symbolic blow to the EU and likely usher in a new era of EU-Serbia relations, likely holding up Serbian accession for the foreseeable future. The election also comes at a time when the Kosovo question is about to be answered one way or the other, with the EU preparing to take over policing and civil administration duties from the UN once Kosovo’s status has been settled. It would be the largest EU foreign operation in its history.
Still, even the interim agreement requires the acquiescence of the Dutch, and other European leaders were putting hard pressure on them to go along with it. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has historically been a hard-liner on cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal, raised pressure on the Dutch on Thursday by calling publicly for the EU to sign the SAA agreement next week.
The recent moves signal that Brussels has relented in its demands for Serbia to release war criminals, calculating that sticking to its guns is not worth the risk of creating an enemy on its doorstep. Up to now, Brussels has insisted Belgrade must cooperate fully with the Hague tribunal, as certified by its chief prosecutor, before it will sign the pact, initialed last year.
Some analysts have warned that if the EU drops its insistence on the release of war crimes suspects or stops and starts negotiations based on domestic political events in Serbia, it will look like a paper tiger and be open to charges of meddling by the nationalist leaders. Some have even argued that such a move could backfire and hand a victory to Nikolic.