Back in from the cold

BELGRADE – Serbia was welcomed back into the international fold this weekend after 15 years of sanctions and diplomatic quarantine because of its role in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Belgrade played host to the annual assembly of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), one of Europe’s top banking conferences and the first major international gathering to take place here since 1989. It was an «overwhelming» vote of confidence in the country’s commitment to reform, said Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. «The decision by the EBRD to hold the annual meeting in Belgrade sends a strong and clear message from the world that it has recognized the great progress we have made,» Kostunica told some 3,000 delegates to the EBRD meeting. It was «the largest and most important event in our country» in many years, he said. The last time Belgrade hosted such a large-scale event was the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement of over 100 states in 1989, on the eve of Yugoslavia’s plunge into bloodshed and disintegration. Until late last year, Belgrade’s refusal to hand over suspects to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague ensured it remained a pariah in Europe, shunned by investors and the international community. After at first stonewalling, Kostunica bowed to the inevitable when tough language from Washington and Brussels made it clear Serbia could forget about European Union and NATO membership unless it cooperated. The EBRD also let it be known it was thinking of moving its meeting to another city. In the first five months of this year, Serbia sent a dozen indictees to The Hague under a policy of «voluntary surrenders,» and was rewarded in April with an agreement to open talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) – a stepping stone to eventual EU membership. Shot in the arm Serbian media greeted the advent of the EBRD conference with the enthusiasm usually reserved for big sports events. Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus said it put Serbia «back on the map of Europe.» «The mood of the country has improved and the EBRD conference contributed a lot to that,» Labus told Reuters. «People do not feel they are isolated, that they are treated differently. That is really a helping hand that we received from the EBRD conference.» But the war crimes issue has not gone away. Both Washington and Brussels have said they expect to see the remaining 10 fugitives in The Hague soon, especially general Ratko Mladic and his political master Radovan Karadzic. Both are accused of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of some 7,400 Muslim men and boys, and for the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, which claimed thousands of civilian lives. US officials attending the meeting were keen to remind Belgrade of its outstanding bill with the tribunal. «We are in the process of looking at the performance today and the continued commitment particularly in the case of Mr Mladic and Mr Karadzic,» US Ambassador to Serbia Michael Polt told reporters on Sunday. US Treasury Department assistant secretary Randy Quarles added that Washington would be prepared to support Serbia «in the operations of the EBRD and other international financial institutions» if The Hague cooperation continued. «We would like to do that but the condition is that they continue to make progress on this front,» Quarles said.