BRUSSELS, Belgium — The Serbian government seems finally to be getting serious about capturing war-crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic.

The European Union, on the other hand, seems to be getting less serious about it.

In Belgrade, this week saw a new round of raids in and around the city seeking the former leader of the Bosnian Serb military, who has been charged with genocide for his alleged role in the killing of 8,000 men and boys in Srebenica. In addition, the Serbian government escalated the reward for Mladic — who has been in hiding since his 1995 indictment by the United Nations’ tribunal in the Hague — from a longstanding $1.4 million to $10 million.

But in Luxembourg last week, EU foreign ministers spent much of the time devoted to the question of Serbia lobbying their Dutch colleague to drop his country’s refusal to move ahead with Serbia’s accession negotiations before Mladic and fellow indictee Goran Hadzic, the former leader of Croatian Serbs, are apprehended.

By agreement of all 27 members, launching Serbia’s accession negotiations had long been contingent on the arrests and other forms of cooperation with the tribunal. Now, under pressure from the other member states and promised the right of a veto down the road, even the Netherlands acquiesced to allowing Serbia’s “referral” to the European Commission, the first formal step toward membership.

This kicks off a process in which the commission spends about a year assessing and assisting in Serbia’s readiness to join. The foreign ministers’ pronouncement that further steps will only be possible when all 27 members agree that Belgrade is doing all it can for the tribunal pacified the Dutch and allowed the other 26 governments to still pay lip-service to the U.N. tribunal.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), for one, is not willing to overlook the missing Mladic.

HRW’s EU director Lotte Leicht said the handling of the Serbian dossier will reveal “how committed the EU is to its own words, but more importantly, how committed [it] is to secure justice for genocide and crimes against humanity that were carried out in the heart of Europe only 15 years ago.”

HRW wrote to EU leaders before the Luxembourg decision, fruitlessly urging foreign ministers not to make the commission referral without further review of the tribunal prosecutor’s less-than-glowing assessment of Belgrade’s cooperation. Now, Leicht said, the decline in pressure could make it even less likely that Mladic and Hadzic will ever face trial. And that, she warned, would make it “very very hard for the EU to be a credible force for justice elsewhere in the world.”

Another country is laser-focused on how the EU finesses the Serbia question: Kosovo. The former Serbian province declared independence two years ago, a move Belgrade says it will never accept. Since five of the 27 EU members also have declined to recognize Kosovo, Brussels has not made recognition a requirement for Serbia’s membership but says it will keep an eye on Serbia’s treatment of its new neighbor.

At first, things didn’t look good. Serbia’s initial rejection of an International Court of Justice ruling in July that Kosovo’s independence was not “illegal” threw the EU into a tizzy. Intensive mediation by High Representative Catherine Ashton and EU governments convinced the Serbs to soften a planned U.N. resolution condemning Kosovo’s actions, a “compromise” that won Belgrade acclaim from both Europe and the U.S.

Serbia later committed to open talks with Kosovo for the first time, cause for further relief in Brussels, along with some reward. Belgian Foreign Minister Steven Vanackere, in the seat of the EU’s rotating presidency, said “this positive and constructive attitude” clearly contributed to the decision to move ahead with accession.

But Kosovo’s ambassador to the EU, Ilir Dugolli, was less impressed.

“Frankly,” Dugolli said, “I’m wondering what message it sends if a country softens a position on a problem it created in the first place.” He expressed disappointment that the EU often fails to challenge Belgrade when, for example, Serb representatives refuse to attend functions, including EU ones, where Kosovo officials are present. “We don’t see reason for any euphoria,” Dugolli said. “We still don’t see a significant change in Serbia’s attitude.”

At the same time, Dugolli said he hoped the active involvement of the EU as a mediator in the envisioned talks between Belgrade and Pristina would improve their chances for success. The resignation of Kosovo’s government and new elections planned for Dec. 12 mean that prospect is unlikely to be tested as soon as was envisioned.

But the current Serb leadership does deserve some kudos for making clear breaks with the bloody past and most of the credit can be given to one man: the unswervingly pro-EU Serbian President Boris Tadic. Though Tadic maintains that Serbia will never accept Kosovo’s sovereignty, his government this week apologized for crimes committed by Belgrade against Croatia, having made a similar apology to Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this year. Last month U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clasped his hand and praised his vision, leadership and “commitment to protect the human rights of all the citizens of your country.”

And Tadic has been rewarded for his regard for the EU. The bloc has twice before adjusted pre-accession steps to support Tadic. Before his tough re-election campaign in 2008 against an ultranationalist opponent, the EU tried to rush through a Stabilization and Association Agreement, a special cooperative agreement for Balkan countries in pre-accession phases. The Dutch blocked the agreement, but a replacement deal was passed in time for the second-round vote. A few months later, when Tadic needed a boost for his Democratic Party in parliamentary elections, the agreement was pushed through. Tadic rushed to an EU meeting in Luxembourg for a signature and champagne-toast photo op.

Serbia next holds parliamentary elections in June 2012 and again there is the danger that nationalist forces could unseat Tadic’s pro-European allies. The European Commission will now have just enough time before that vote to complete its assessment and, conceivably, offer Serbia membership.

Within that time, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz will also issue two reports on whether Serb authorities are cooperating with the court to their maximum ability. Putting Mladic behind bars would be the most visible sign of such cooperation.

Doug Saunders, the Europe bureau chief for the Toronto Globe and Mail and a longtime chronicler of Balkan developments, is an admirer of the Serbian president’s accomplishments and has blunt advice for the EU: Drop the Mladic arrest as a precondition for membership. He said that while it is important it should not determine the country’s future.

“We have a government and a president that have made atonement their mission, that have apologized for their country’s role in Srebenica, that have allowed Kosovo to secede” as much as possible under Serbian social and political conditions, Saunders said. “If Tadic’s Democrats were to lose the next election to radicals as a result of the EU’s unnecessary obstacles, then Europe would have itself to blame for the consequences.”

For now, the EU is still hoping it won’t have to choose between Tadic and Mladic.

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