- - Tuesday, September 13, 2011

BELGRADE — Just a decade ago, Serbia joining the European Union would have been unthinkable.

But today, EU officials — and Serbs themselves — say that allowing the former pariah state into the exclusive bloc could bring benefits to both.

Serbia is already a close trading partner of the EU — both sides benefit from this economic relationship,” said John Clancy, acting spokesman for EU Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy.

EU economic actors have invested more than [$13 billion] over the last decade in Serbia,” he added.

Mr. Clancy said that expanding the EU to include Balkan countries such as Serbia would help bring peace and stability to the region and “economic benefits to the countries which join and to the European Union as a whole.”

“An enlarged EU carries more weight and acts as a stronger international player when issues are discussed on the global stage,” he said.

In June, Serbia’s Balkan neighbor Croatia finalized negotiations to become the EU’s 28th member by 2013. Member states will decide on Serbia’s candidacy on Oct. 12.

According to recent polls by Serbia's European Integration Office (SEIO), about 53 percent of Serbians want to join the EU, mostly for economic reasons — and despite their government’s rocky relations with Western Europe over the past few decades.

“Serbian citizens are becoming less idealistic and more rational when it comes to the EU,” said Milica Delevic, director of the SEIO. “They don’t like everything, but they maintain it is in Serbia’s best interest to move in the direction of membership.”

Serbia emerged from the 1992 breakup of Yugoslavia awash in civil strife and ethnic violence, and has seen its borders redrawn, political instability, economic turmoil and an independence movement in the province of Kosovo.

The country only started to turn itself around after the national elections in 2000, when more than half a million people protested in the streets of the capital, Belgrade, resulting in the ouster of President Slobodan Milosevic.

Today, Belgrade, like the country itself, is a work in progress — with decrepit buildings in the downtown area contrasting with the restored pedestrian shopping lanes that feature high-end stores, trendy restaurants and cafes in parts of restored Old Town.

Still, most residents can’t afford to frequent the upscale establishments.

“People here have nothing,” said Anna, a Belgrade native and dance instructor who declined to give her last name. “And young people can’t afford to go to university because it’s all privatized. So I think it’s a good idea to join the EU because we have to try something new to make a change.”

According to Serbia’s Statistical Office, the country’s unemployment rate is 22.2 percent. The average monthly net salary is $707 in Belgrade and $566 in the rest of the country.

By comparison, the average monthly EU income is about $4,551.

Milosevic, who oversaw a crackdown on ethnic minorities despite international sanctions in the 1990s, destroyed the country, Anna said, adding that his shadow still hangs over Belgrade. (Milosevic died in 2006 while standing trial on war crimes charges.)

Lingering perceptions stemming from Milosevic’s administration are some of the things Serbia is trying to change as it prepares for EU membership. Serbia handed over accused war criminals such as former Bosnian-Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic on May 31 and Croatian-Serb Gen. Goran Hadcic almost two months later. It also has been negotiating with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on peace talks with Kosovo.

“The arrests and transfers to The Hague of ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia] of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadcic represent a major achievement for international justice and hence for Serbia’s road to the EU,” Mr. Clancy said.

Even so, just over 30 percent of Serbians supported the handing over of Gen. Mladic to the ICTY.

Miroslav Zdravkovic, editor of the website Makroekonomija.org, which monitors the economies of Serbia and other countries of the former Yugoslavia, said that joining the EU could mean a shift of production to Serbian manufacturers, since Serbian labor has become cheaper than Chinese.

“The best Serbia can do at present is continue to intensify the reform process and [continue to act in a way] that makes it a predictable and reliable partner,” Ms. Delevic said.

Based on opinion polls by the SEIO, 84 percent of Serbians agree with the political and social reforms required for EU ascension such as democratic government, rule of law, human rights and a competitive market economy.