BRUSSELS (AP) — Serbia's arrest of its last suspect wanted by the U.N. Balkan war crimes court fulfils a critical condition for the opening of membership talks with the European Union. But complex issues such as relations with Kosovo, corruption, and the opening of markets to foreign competition could delay accession until the end of the decade.
The seizure of Croatian Serb political leader Goran Hadzic — following the capture of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic — means the EU's executive body will now likely recommend giving candidate status to Serbia, allowing accession talks to begin next year.
The process would impose fundamental economic and social changes on Serbia — long considered a pariah for igniting a series of wars in the 1990s in which nearly 150,000 people died.
Moving toward EU membership will involve negotiating dozens of individual requirements, most dealing with the bloc's complex set of internal market regulations that form the basis of EU economic policies. Others deal with human rights, independence of the judiciary, public administration, agriculture, financial markets, media freedoms and anti-corruption measures.
It took Serbia's neighbor Croatia six years to complete the negotiations.
"There is still a long road ahead that needs to be traveled before the final destination of EU membership is reached," EU spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said.
For Serbia, a particularly sensitive and complex issue will be its former province of Kosovo, populated by ethnic Albanians, which declared independence three years ago.
Belgrade has vowed never to accept Kosovo's statehood, although it is already recognized by more than 70 nations, including the United States and most EU members. But Kosovo remains in limbo because five EU nations have refused to recognize it.
The EU has not set recognition of Kosovo as a formal requirement for Serbia. But the bloc insists the two nations normalize their relations by permitting free travel, recognizing each other's documents and respecting property rights.
Other key issues for Serbia are the reform of the judiciary and the fight against corruption and organized crime.
EU vigilance in these areas has intensified since Bulgaria and Romania were hurriedly inducted into the EU in 2007, without necessary safeguards. Consequently, the judiciary in both nations is prone to bribes and corruption cases tend to drag on indefinitely. Both were told in formal EU reports this week that they needed urgently to work on judicial and other reforms--and not only to enact reform but to implement it.
"Serbia now needs to continue to devote special attention notably to the rule of law, and the fight against corruption and organized crime," Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule said.
"We look forward to the launch of the process on property rights, including restitution," he said referring to the return of private property seized by the Communist government after World War II.
Another tough problem will be opening Serbia's tightly controlled market to outside competition and breaking the monopolistic power of local "tycoons" — businessmen who used political connections to amass fortunes in dubious privatization deals during the 1990s under former President Slobodan Milosevic.
Serbia's agreement with the EU requires the opening of domestic markets to foreign investors and competitors by 2016, a move certain to be fiercely resisted by the oligarchs.
"I think what lies ahead will be much tougher than arresting Karadzic and Mladic," said Zoran Ostojic, a lawmaker from Serbia's staunchly pro-EU Liberal Party.
Corruption is described as endemic in Serbia, from everyday situations and low-level municipal officials to high-ranking graft that involves multi-million deals in state tenders and public purchases that are estimated to be worth 4 billion euros per year. In the past several years, authorities have arrested scores of people in cases involving corruption in health care, construction business or education.
However, critics note that political elite has shied away from tackling the problem within its own ranks.
"The problem is that corruption is so deeply rooted here, we are talking about thousands of people including officials from Tadic's party," Ostojic said.
In his message to the nation on Wednesday, Tadic acknowledged that the process of integration would require tough reforms, but emphasized they were necessary to ensure regional stability after the wars that shook the Balkans in the 1990s.
"We want to continue with the integration because it is the only way to preserve peace in this area," he said.
Gec reported from Belgrade.