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EU pushes former Yugoslav republics to reform

Former Yugoslav republics need to work harder to modernize their economies and root out corruption to improve their prospects of joining the European Union, the EU said.

Croatia, the ex-Yugoslav state closest to getting into the EU, is making only limited progress in adopting EU-style free-market regulations and in stamping out organized crime, the European Commission said. „The road to EU accession goes through substantial reforms,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said at a Brussels news conference yesterday. „It will not be a walk in the park.” Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina faced similar criticism, highlighting the hurdles to EU membership that remain in the aftermath of the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Croatia, the richest EU aspirant, is aiming to join in 2009, a date that depends on Croatia's progress as much as on the EU's willingness to let it in.

One ex-Yugoslav republic, Slovenia, joined in the last enlargement wave in 2004. Slow economic growth in western Europe and an upsurge in anti-immigration sentiment has fueled opposition to further EU expansion, though focused more on Turkey than the ex-Yugoslav republics. Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said he was satisfied with the report, which talks about the progress Croatia made and the tasks ahead. „We are looking forward with optimism toward cooperation with the European Commission and we are preparing for full European Union membership,” he told reporters in Zagreb. „All the reforms that must be completed, from judiciary reform, public administration, fight against corruption and organized crime, all that is ahead of us, we are doing that for ourselves as well,” Sanader said.

Croatia's entry negotiations got off to a bumpy start last year after a six-month delay due to the government's inability to arrest General Ante Gotovina, the leading war-crimes suspect still at large from the 1991-95 war. Rehn said further efforts were needed in particular „as regards judicial reform, the fight against corruption and economic reform.” Rehn will make a two-day visit to Croatia on November 30, Vincent Degert, head of the European Commission's delegation to Zagreb, said at a press conference yesterday. Macedonia, declared a „candidate” for EU membership last year, is striving to catch up with Croatia and start entry talks.

Croatia waited more than a year to move up from candidate status. While earning good marks for its energy, transport and public-contracting policies, Macedonia has no „coherent strategy” on agriculture and is plagued by widespread corruption, the commission, the EU's executive agency, said in its report. Macedonia „has continued to make progress over the past year,” Rehn said, „but at a slower pace.” Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski warned that delays in accession could increase tensions in the region. „If the EU freezes its enlargement, that might strengthen extremists in Macedonia and elsewhere,” state television quoted him as saying. „Tensions would increase.”

Serbia remains stuck at an earlier phase in the process because of its failure to hunt down Ratko Mladic, blamed for the murder of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in July 1995, the worst mass killing in Europe since World War II. Yesterday's report showed no sign that the EU is ready to restart talks on a trade accord, the first step toward membership, that it halted last year because of the failure to arrest Mladic. Serbia's cooperation with the United Nations war-crimes court „still suffers from a number of deficiencies,” the commission report said. „Serbia has, therefore, not yet met its obligation to fully cooperate.” Zivorad Kovacevic, a former Yugoslav ambassador to the United States, called the report „an encouragement for our country” adding that it seemed to say that if Serbia cooperated with the court, the EU would sign the trade accord. Serbia was also criticized for „limited progress” in talks over the final status of Kosovo, the Serb province under United Nations control since NATO's bombing campaign dislodged Serb forces in 1999. Serbs must „focus much less no the nationalist past and much more on the European future,” Rehn said.

Montenegro is pursuing its own trade accord with the EU after splitting from Serbia this year. The government needs to upgrade its „administrative capacity” to show it can enforce a trade pact, the EU said. The EU also cast doubt on Bosnia-Herzegovina's goal of reaching a trade accord by the end of the year, saying „the conclusion of the negotiations is dependent on Bosnia-Herzegovina's progress in implementing key reforms.” Yesterday's report also mapped out the challenges for Albania, not part of the former Yugoslav federation, which signed a trade accord with the EU in June. „EU accession is no bullet train, no Eurostar,” Rehn said. „It is rather like the Orient Express, which despite its name is not an express train.” (Bloomberg)