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Friday, June 24, 2011

Serbia: Current Issues and U.S. Policy

Steven Woehrel
Specialist in European Affairs

Serbia faces an important crossroads in its development. It is seeking to integrate into the European Union (EU), but its progress has been hindered by tensions with the United States and many EU countries over the independence of Serbia’s Kosovo province, and, until recently, its failure to transfer indicted war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). However, on May 26, 2011, Serbian security forces captured indicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, who was living in Serbia under an assumed name. He was transferred to the ICTY a few days later.

Serbia’s government is a coalition led by pro-Western forces. The global economic crisis poses serious challenges for Serbia. Painful austerity measures have been required for Serbia to receive loans from the IMF and other international financial institutions. High unemployment and poor living standards (including wage levels that have not kept up with high inflation) could result in the coming to power of forces more skeptical of close ties with the United States and the EU after parliamentary elections are held next spring.

Serbia’s key foreign policy objectives are to secure membership in the European Union and to hinder international recognition of Kosovo’s independence. In December 2009, Serbia submitted an application to join the EU, but the EU delayed a decision on whether to accept Serbia as a membership candidate, in large part due to Serbia’s inability or unwillingness to arrest Mladic. Now that Mladic has been transferred to the ICTY, most observers believe that Serbia has a good chance of achieving EU candidate status in December 2011. However, even if Serbia is accepted as a candidate, many years of negotiations will be required before it can join the EU.

Serbia has vowed to take “all legal and diplomatic measures” to preserve its former province of Kosovo as legally part of Serbia. So far, 76 countries, including the United States and 22 of 27 EU countries, have recognized Kosovo’s independence. Russia, Serbia’s ally on the issue, has used the threat of its Security Council veto to block U.N. membership for Kosovo. After the International Court of Justice ruled in July 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not contravene international law, the EU pressured Serbia to hold talks with Kosovo. EUbrokered talks on technical issues began in March 2011, but have so far not produced any agreements.

In December 2006, Serbia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PFP) program. PFP is aimed at helping countries come closer to NATO standards and at promoting their cooperation with NATO. Although it supports NATO membership for its neighbors, Serbia is not seeking NATO membership. This may be due to such factors as memories of NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999, U.S. support for Kosovo’s independence, and a desire to maintain close ties with Russia.

U.S.-Serbian relations have improved since the United States recognized Kosovo’s independence in February 2008, when Serbia sharply condemned the U.S. move and demonstrators sacked a portion of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. During a May 2009 visit to Belgrade, Vice President Joseph Biden stressed strong U.S. support for close ties with Serbia. He said the countries could “agree to disagree” on Kosovo’s independence. He called on Serbia to transfer the remaining war criminals to the ICTY, promote reform in neighboring Bosnia, and cooperate with international bodies in Kosovo.

Date of Report: June 16, 2011
Number of Pages: 13
Order Number: RS22601
Price: $29.95

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