Serbia’s president Boris Tadic said it is time for the European Union to do its part by boosting his nation’s efforts to join the bloc, arguing the arrest of war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic proves it is serious about rejoining the international fold.
Mr Tadic also rejected speculation that authorities had known of Mladic’s hiding place, but delayed his arrest to coincide with a visit by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
The rumours have persisted because Mladic was found living not far from the capital, Belgrade, with relatives who share his last name.
“Any such comment makes no sense,” Mr Tadic said. “The truth is that we arrested Ratko Mladic the moment we discovered him.”
Mladic, Europe’s most wanted war crimes fugitive, was arrested on Thursday in a village north of Belgrade after 16 years on the run.
He is charged by a UN war crimes court for atrocities committed by his troops during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
But Mr Tadic said he wants the international community to recognise what Serbia has done and act on its membership hopes. He also pledged to implement key reforms necessary for membership.
“I simply ask the EU to fulfil its part,” he said. “We fulfilled our part and we will continue to do so.”
The EU has repeatedly said that Serbia could win pre-membership talks only on the condition it arrested the wartime Bosnian Serb commander.
Some EU nations have already said Serbia needs to do more, including arresting its last fugitive, Goran Hadzic, who led Croatian Serb rebels during the 1991-1995 war.
Serbia, once considered a pariah nation because of its late President Slobodan Milosevic’s warmongering policies and for harbouring war crimes suspects, now expects pre-candidacy status by the end of the year.
It is time to recognise the country has moved on, he said.
“No one has the right any more to place Serbia on the pillar of shame,” Mr Tadic said. “No one has the right to say that this country is without the rule of law, and no one can say that we are a nation which is unable to face its past.”
Mr Tadic said that Serbia should be given the same path to membership accorded to another former Yugoslav republic, Croatia.
Having specific dates of possible entry into the bloc would hugely boost Mr Tadic’s pro-Western government. It would also give the country’s ailing economy more chance for stable foreign investment – as it would signal to investors that the country was stable.
“We are demanding that Serbia, just like Croatia, simultaneously be given the date for the start of the entry talks and not just the candidate status. When I say we demand I mean we deserve it.
”There are no obstacles left,“ he said. ”Stopping Serbia would be purely political.“
Mr Tadic also said Mr Hadzic will be arrested.
Serbia will “arrest Mr Hadzic in the next few weeks, a month, the year ahead of us,” Mr Tadic said.
Hadzic is accused by a United Nations war crimes court of the murder of hundreds of Croat civilians and the forcible deportation of around 28,000 Croats and other non-Serbs in Croatia during the war.
Meanwhile, the lawyer for Mladic said he has formally filed an appeal against the former general’s extradition – a move that will likely delay his handover for at least a day.
Attorney Milos Saljic asked for a battery of doctors to examine the 69-year old Mladic, who is said to have suffered at least two strokes.
Mr Saljic said he had mailed his appeal from an unspecified post office in Belgrade. Court officials will now need to wait for it and review it before moving forward with the case.
Bruno Vekaric, Serbia’s deputy war crimes prosecutor, said Mladic is employing delaying tactics and that nothing should prevent his extradition to The Hague tribunal.