Page last updated at 16:34 GMT, Thursday, 11 September 2008 17:34 UK

Serbs' EU hopes still hang on The Hague

By Nick Thorpe
BBC News Balkans correspondent

Serbia is keeping up a diplomatic offensive to win an important trade agreement from the European Union next week, and to keep its EU membership ambitions on track.

Serge Brammertz
Serge Brammertz holds Serbia's EU hopes in his hands
As Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) visited Belgrade to review progress, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic appealed to EU foreign ministers to recognise that Serbia is now in full cooperation with the tribunal.

"We believe the time to act is now. We believe this is the time for the process to be unfrozen," Mr Jeremic told reporters in Athens, after meeting his Greek counterpart.

EU foreign ministers gather next Monday in Brussels, with Serbia high on the agenda.

A Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) was signed with Serbia in May, but only ratified by the Serbian parliament this week.

The interim trade agreement was devised as a sweetener for Serbia, while the European Parliament and 27 national Parliaments ponder Serbia's record.

But in Belgrade, the chief prosecutor offered only tentative praise.

In a brief statement to reporters, Mr Brammertz said he was cautiously optimistic "that the search for the two remaining fugitives, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic will be successful".

But he stopped short of the ringing endorsement of Serbia's achievement in capturing the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, that the government had been hoping for.

Clock ticking

Co-operation with the ICTY has long been the main stumbling block on Serbia's path to Europe.

But while most EU countries have warmed to Serbia since a pro-EU government took office on 7 July, and especially since the arrest of Radovan Karadzic on 21 July, the Dutch and Belgian governments insist that the last two fugitives, Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, are caught before the interim trade deal is signed.

A Serbian Radical Party supporter kissing photos of war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic (L), Ratko Mladic (C) and Vojislav Seselj
Karadzic, Mladic and Seselj are held in the same esteem by Serb hardliners

Last weekend, the Dutch Foreign Minister, Maxime Verhagen said it was necessary for Serbia to either arrest the fugitives, or prove in other ways to the chief prosecutor that Serbia was "fully cooperating" with the ICTY.

In Belgrade, Serge Brammertz met members of the government action team - tasked with tracking down and co-ordinating the arrest of the remaining fugitives - as well as President Tadic and top officials.

Time is now the main problem for the Serbian government. Mr Brammertz is only due to present his bi-annual report on Serbia to the UN Security Council in December.

That would be too late for Serbia, which badly needs to prove its merits to the EU before the French presidency winds up at the end of the year.

The ICTY prosecutor has no formal relations with the EU, so diplomats will have to resort to private contacts with him over the coming days, to gain a fuller impression from his visit.

The worry in Belgrade is that future EU presidents, starting with the Czechs in the New Year, have other, non-Balkan priorities to the generally pro-Serb French.

The worst case scenario is that Serbia could lose two years in its EU bid.

Sharpened spoons

Last week, President Tadic led a high level delegation to Brussels, and wrung from the President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, the hope of Serbia gaining candidate status in 2009.

Then the government tried to persuade the nationalist opposition in Parliament to back the bill to ratify the SAA with the EU, signed by the previous government on the eve of May's elections. Cross-party support for the agreement would have looked good in EU capitals.

For a moment, that consensus appeared possible. Tomislav Nikolic, the acting leader of the Serbian Radical Party, persuaded his party faction of 78 deputies to back the SAA.

But a phone call from the party leader Vojislav Seselj from his cell in The Hague, where he is on trial for alleged war crimes, was enough to reverse that decision.

In protest against Mr Seselj's action, Mr Nikolic resigned as leader on Saturday, and set up a moderate faction of his supporters.

A cartoon in Monday's pro-European daily Danas rewarded him. Mr Nikolic is portrayed throwing a sharpened spoon into a thorn bush.

Serb readers recognise this as a reference to an infamous joke by ex-SRS leader Mr Seselj, that the throats of Croats should be cut with rusty household objects.

By throwing his improvised weapon away, the cartoon suggests Mr Nikolic has finally opted for civilised democratic debate.

The bill was eventually ratified by 140 votes to 29, with the Radicals absent or abstaining.

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