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Serbia and the EU after the Acquittal of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač

Lana Ravel and Maia Lazar, interns at New Eastern Europe, interview Branislav Radeljić, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of East London.

December 2, 2012 - Example Author - Articles and Commentary



NEW EASTERN EUROPE: Will the acquittal of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač worsen diplomatic relations between Serbia and Croatia in the long term?

BRANISLAV RADELJIĆ: When talking about diplomatic relations between the two countries, it should not be ignored that the acquittal came from the Hague tribunal, and not from the Croatian government. It is possible, as already speculated elsewhere, that the Croats relied on various external advocates and lobby agencies in order to secure the acquittal, but still, this should not be allowed when discussing war crimes. We read about wars and consequences, we teach our students about the ethics of war and we insist on (international) justice and responsibilities – all the aspects that seem to have been ignored by the Hague tribunal, established to deal with all of them down to the detail.

It is understandable that the acquittal was received in Serbia as a huge shock and another slap in the face. Numerous official as well as unofficial statements were immediately delivered, criticising the work of the Hague tribunal as extremely politicised. Although various documents have shown that both the Serbian and Croatian sides committed war crimes, it looks that the tribunal didn’t find the ones about Croatian generals Gotovina and Markač convincing enough. However, this also questions the ethics of such tribunals – that they can find evidence when needed and ignore it when not suitable.

Even regardless of the decision of the Hague tribunal, diplomatic relations between Serbia and Croatia have often been characterised by denial (with regard to the acts committed in the past), jealousy (as one of them is more advanced in the process of European Union integrations) and uncertainty (whether Croatia, as an EU member, would use its veto power to block Serbia’s EU accession). With all this in mind, I see the EU playing a very important role in the normalisation process, meaning that the Brussels administration should foster its enlargement approach even more, by providing additional incentives. This way, both the Serbian and Croatian political elites as well as their respective electorates would realise the potential benefits that would in turn minimise (if not fully delete) the already long-existing animosity.

Do you think Serbia’s “downgrading” its ties with The Hague will impact its potential of EU accession?

The Hague tribunal was powerful enough to affect Serbia’s progress towards EU candidacy, when the Serbian authorities seemed reluctant to fully cooperate, meaning to capture and extradite the remaining war criminals. However, given that the last fugitive was arrested in July 2011, I don’t think that Serbia’s current “downgrading” of ties with The Hague to technical will affect its progress towards EU accession. In fact, given the unreasonable decision of the tribunal, it is reasonable to say that it should now become much more favourable towards Serbia’s accession.

To what extent do you think that the appeal court decision could influence Serbia’s attitude towards the independence of Kosovo within the bargaining process for EU membership?

The present EU-Serbia relationship (via the Kosovo case, of course) is not an easy one. The new Serbian government has not entirely been clear about the priorities and objectives: it wants Kosovo to remain a constituent part of Serbia, it wants EU integrations and it wants greater cooperation with Russia (who rejects to recognise Kosovo’s independence). In Serbia, such an ambition can very well serve rhetorical purposes and is often seen as an achievable one. But, if you are in the West, then the interpretation is completely different and Serbia’s behaviour makes no sense at all. The outcome of such an approach is the continuation of stagnation and isolation.

Over time, and especially after the Kosovo’s 2008 proclamation of independence, the idea of a potential trade-off has established itself amongst the public. However, the Brussels officials have never openly said that Serbia will have to recognise Kosovo in order to join the EU, even if this would be left as the very last criteria to be satisfied in the whole accession process. If Brussels officials were more outspoken, then it would be easier to think about possible scenarios. Lack of clear statements simply encourages the following question: who guarantees that even if Serbia gives up Kosovo and accepts the Hague decision (which is actually minor when compared to the Kosovo issue), will it become a full EU member?

Zoran Ivošević, former judge of the Serbian Supreme Court, lambasted not just the Hague but the Serbian courts for being “corrupt” and allowing the “political powers to influence the judicial powers.” Do his judgments have some merit?

They do. When talking about the Hague tribunal, its bias and double standards were noted and criticised well before the recent controversy, and this is a very serious problem concerning the ones who originally established it and the ones who are running it now. When discussing the situation in Serbian judiciary, I would just repeat what the 2012 Serbia Progress Report, drafted by the European Commission, observed: “It is still possible to enter the judicial profession, in particular at higher levels, on the basis of unclear criteria without having passed through the Judicial Academy. The legal framework still leaves room for undue political influence over the judiciary, in particular as regards parliament’s power to appoint judges and prosecutors – including the President of the Supreme Court of Cassation and the Republic Public Prosecutor – and its direct participation in the work of the HJC [High Judicial Council] and the SPC [State Prosecutorial Council].”

Will former prime minister of Croatia Ivo Sanader’s arrest for war profiteering and taking bribes negatively affect Croatia’s image abroad?

Although involved in multiple scandals, I don’t believe that the Sanader case will significantly affect Croatia’s image abroad. Croatia has closed the acquis chapters and is expected to join the EU in 2013, and this is the most important issue at the moment. Whoever deals with the Western Balkans, be it EU officials, academics or journalists, knows exactly what the situation is like in the region, and thus corruption is often outlined as one of the dominant features. The Sanader case could become much more relevant for the developments at home, as it is highly unlikely that the former prime minister was alone when pursuing the illegal activities he has been accused of.

Due to all the recent press on the events in the Balkans from Sanader’s arrest, Radimir Čačić’s arrest, and the acquittal of two former war generals, the spotlight is on the region. The fact that this has all happened within the same week is a coincidence, but does this surprise you?

This is a coincidence that doesn’t really surprise me. Again here, given that all the names are Croatia-related, I don’t think that these events will challenge Croatia’s accession to the EU. The media do report the events, but still it seems that the international community and the Brussels administration, in particular, are not commenting as much as they could. For someone who is interested in the region academically, it is extremely interesting to see how issues of huge relevance can be easily downplayed or even ignored.

However, by looking at various EU progress reports covering the whole of the Western Balkans, it is possible to conclude that the region is still rather problematic and, more worryingly, it is not entirely clear how some of the alarming issues can be fixed. The EU has been involved in the region since the early 1990s, first as an interventionist actor and then as an integrationist movement, but the problem is that some of the strategies have not produced expected results. This can be associated with the Europeans and their policies, but also with the locals, who reject responding to demands introduced externally. The carrot-and-stick approach can often work, but not necessarily always.

The French academic Paul Garde wrote in his book, Les Balkans: heritages et evolutions, that the Hague tribunal succeeded in its task. When we consider the number and quality of the convicted, but that that the Hague tribunal failed within an educational dimension – namely, that in each country in the former Yugoslavia, most people only accept the conclusions which defend their country and consider themselves as victims, while the others are the one being guilty. What is your opinion on this?

Garde makes some good observations in his book. Yes, the Hague tribunal has managed to gather and prosecute some war criminals, but the fact that it has been “some” and not “all” makes discussions about lessons learnt much more complex. The recent Gotovina and Markač case, which according to many managed to turn war criminals into national heroes, has simply contributed to the overall complexity.

Regarding the often-puzzling discourse about victims (good us) and aggressors (bad them), many Croats were victims of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s and they relied on this aspect when approaching and criticising the West for not reacting and punishing the Serbs. In fact, in my 2012 book – Europe and the Collapse of Yugoslavia: The Role of Non-State Actors and European Diplomacy – I talk about the strategies employed by various non-state actors to assist Slovenia and Croatia, the first two victims of the Yugoslav drama, on their way towards international recognition of independence. Still, being a victim (whenever and wherever) should not be considered enough to tolerate crimes committed on behalf of those same victims.

Branislav Radeljić is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of East London. His main research interests focus on the study of European Union politics and Eastern Europe.

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