Croatia, known for cooperating with the UN war crimes court at The Hague, now finds it's been caught up by Serbia, and risks losing its advantage in terms of its international reputation, analysts say.
People walk by a poster of top war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina
Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, long on the run, now seem like less of a liability for Belgrade than Ante Gotovina does for Zagreb, which finds itself barred from European Union entry talks until it hands over the ex-Croatian general.
The fact that, last year, Zagreb persuaded all eight suspects demanded by the war crimes tribunal -- Croatians and Bosnian Croats also holding Croatian citizenship -- to surrender has been overshadowed by a late burst from Belgrade, which has delivered 10 Serbs or Bosnian Serbs since November.
Gotovina, who has been evading arrest since 2001, is wanted by the UN court for the alleged murder of at least 150 ethnic Serbs at the end of the 1991-95 Serbo-Croatian war.
Croatian authorities insist that he has fled the country despite assertions to the contrary from chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.
Most Croatians regard him as a hero of the war of independence from the former Yugoslavia, and he enjoys both open and clandestine support that makes it extremely difficult for the government to act.
Good work overshadowed
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader after the EU delayed the start of membership talks with Croatia because Zagreb has failed to surrender a former Croatian general to the U.N. war crimes tribunal for trial.
"During the negotiations on starting accession talks between Croatia and the European Union, the case of Gotovina overshadowed everything and it seemed that no one wanted to remember that Zagreb has met all the other demands by the UN court," a European diplomat commented.
"Certainly in Serbia there is a whole package of war crimes fugitives' cases, including Karadzic and Mladic, and Croatia has only one, but Zagreb has to make the big step if it wants its full cooperation to be acknowledged," another Western diplomat said.
Karadzic and Mladic, Bosnian Serb wartime political and military leaders respectively, remain at large since being charged in 1995 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for alleged genocide and crimes committed during Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
"In Serbia's case, now we have the situation that everyone is speaking about positive cooperation (with the ICTY), while as far as Croatia is concerned, everyone is talking of incomplete cooperation," political analyst Zeljko Trkanjec told AFP. "In this context, Croatia's position is more difficult than it was before."
"In order to resolve this, the Croatian government has to make the final move, simply break General Gotovina's support network and thus remove this last obstacle to its cooperation with The Hague court," he stressed.
Another analyst, Zarko Puhovski, pointed out that in Belgrade, the view was emerging that Croatia and former foe Serbia, despite a big gap between the two former Yugoslav republics, could eventually enter the EU together.
"Until recently it seemed absurd, but now it is not so absurd any more," Puhovski said.
Moving toward EU membership
Croatia has the status of an EU membership candidate, while Serbia-Montenegro hopes for a positive opinion, due to be released on April 12, which will lead to the opening of negotiations towards a stabilization and cooperation agreement with the EU.
Such an accord is seen as the first step towards membership of the 25-nation bloc.
Trkanjec considered that a scenario in which Brussels would link Croatia's and Serbia-Montenegro's EU candidacies was unlikely. But he did not exclude the possibility that Croatia's progress could be linked to that of another former Yugoslav republic, Macedonia, which is pushing for EU candidate status.
Skopje has no problems with the ICTY: the only two Macedonians wanted by the court, on charges relating to the conflict between Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces in 2001, former interior minister Ljube Boskovski and his bodyguard Johan Tarculovski, turned themselves in earlier this month.