A Pariah No More: Serbia Bids to Join the E.U.

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Djordje Kojadanovic / Reuters

A man gives his passport to be stamped at the Serbia-Hungary border after the European Union allowed visa-free travel for Serbia.

It was just over a decade ago that NATO forces bombed Belgrade in Operation Allied Force, a mission aimed at halting Serbia's brutal repression of Kosovo. Since then, Serbia has been slowly shaking off its status as a European pariah, inching toward the West and moving away from its historical ally, Russia. Then, on Tuesday, it turned a corner on its path to international respectability by formally entering a bid to join the European Union, a club that includes many of the countries that once tried to pulverize the Balkan nation.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, whose victory last year in a tight runoff election was seen as crucial to the country's further integration with Europe, submitted the application on a trip to Sweden, the country that currently holds the E.U. presidency. "This is indeed a great day for Serbia. This day represents a crossroads," Tadic said. "Today we are entering a stage which is very difficult, which demands deep and painful reforms." Swedish Prime Minster Fredrik Reinfeldt described the move as "a new beginning for Serbia," but warned, "the road to membership is long and demanding."

The bid comes days after citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia won the right to travel without visas to E.U. countries for the first time since the bloody Balkan wars of the early 1990s — a move that some low-cost airlines had already anticipated by adding Belgrade and other airports to their routes. It also follows the E.U.'s decision earlier this month to unfreeze an interim trade and cooperation pact with Serbia — seen as a precursor to eventual E.U. membership.

Belgrade is already working closely with Brussels to make the necessary economic, legal and constitutional reforms to join the E.U. The government is also closely monitoring the European Commission's "progress reports" on its efforts, the latest of which underlined privatization and fighting organized crime as priorities for the government. And E.U. officials were pleased with the austere 2010 budget approved by Serbian lawmakers Monday that meets the strict terms of a recent International Monetary Fund loan. Belgrade is also rethinking its military options after neighbors Albania and Croatia joined NATO earlier this year, meaning most of Serbia is now surrounded by the alliance that bombed it in 1999. Serbia has already joined NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, a cooperation framework for NATO member aspirants.

But despite Serbia's newfound enthusiasm for the rest of Europe, officials caution against expecting any swift E.U. accession. Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic that has managed to join the bloc; Serbia now joins Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, Turkey and Iceland in an ever-lengthening line of aspiring candidates. Almost all of the other applicants are further along the path to membership. And within the E.U., there is growing resistance toward adding new members, a sentiment known as "enlargement fatigue" following the recent accession of a dozen mainly eastern European countries.

Yet the biggest obstacle to Serbia's membership is the past —specifically Belgrade's inability to face up to the baleful legacy of the Balkan wars. The E.U. has made the capture of war fugitives Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic a precondition to even starting membership negotiations. The two men are believed to be hiding in the Serbian mountains under the tacit protection of key politicians. The Netherlands is particularly keen to see the arrest of Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on genocide charges for his alleged role in the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995. Serbia handed over former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic to the Hague last year, and Tadic has said he is committed to meeting Serbia's international obligations. But Mladic and Hadzic remain on the run and most Serbs reject the idea of handing them over to the ICTY.

Another barrier to membership is Serbia's continuing belligerence toward Kosovo, where about 10,000 people were killed and 850,000 driven from their homes during the war. Although NATO ousted Belgrade's tanks from the territory in 1999, Serbia still refuses to accept the loss of its province. Indeed, Serbia's condemnation of Kosovo's declaration of independence last year even raised concerns about a possible new military intervention. "Serbia still needs to come to terms with the war crimes of the 1990s and go through the painful but essential process of breaking from the stranglehold of the nationalist ideologies that led to the wars," says Alvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the Paris-based E.U. Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) think tank.

But he says Serbia is much further along than it was even just a few years ago — a testament to recent efforts by the E.U. to reach out to the country. "It testifies to the effectiveness of European leverage and shows that the E.U.'s democratic inclusion process is working," de Vasconcelos says. "It shows the soft power of the E.U., the power of attraction —that any European destiny is linked with democratization."