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Croatians Dismayed Over Postponement of EU Membership Negotiations

Croatia's chances of joining the European Union in 2009 are at least temporally on hold as the EU said this past week it was waiting to begin accession negotiations because Zagreb is not fully cooperating with the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

Croatians are dismayed with the postponement of EU membership negotiations. Those talks had been expected to start March 17 and result in Croatia following Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union. That timetable for 2009 accession could still hold but only if there is a break in the impasse over General Ante Gotovina.

The now retired army commander led the successful campaign that drove Serb forces out of the Krajina district of Croatia ten years ago. However, the war crimes tribunal has charged General Gotovina with murder and ordering the mass deportation of civilians. The Croatian government says the general is not in Croatia. The EU says Zagreb is dragging its feet.

The impasse has triggered a wave of anti-EU sentiment in Croatia. Support for joining the EU dropped three percentage points this month to 44 percent and is expected to drop further.

A sampling of opinion at at Zagreb University reflects Croatian ambivalence about the EU and General Gotovina.

"I don't know if it is an acceptable condition [to extradite Gotovina]. But why should we have to send him if he's not available or they can't find him?" asked 22-year-old Miroslav, a student of computer sciences.

Another Zagreb resident named Branko expresses a similar opinion.

"I mean we've done everything we could have done," he said. "But if he's not in Croatia how can we send him to the Hague? So I don't think we can do anything more than what we've already done. It's just an excuse [from the EU] to postpone our integration [into Europe]."

Branko believes it is essential for Croatia to join the EU. Otherwise, he says, Croatia is just a former Yugoslav republic left in an uncertain status.

Maria, 17, who will enter university in September, regards General Gotovina as a hero. But she believes he should go to the Hague.

"I don't know…we must find him. Or something. He should go, but he's not guilty. He should go there and tell them [that]," said Maria.

Problems associated with the search for those accused of war crimes during the break up of the former Yugoslavia are not unique to Croatia. Despite exhaustive efforts, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief are still at large.

In Kosovo, the Albanian populated south Serbian province, Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj was indicted by the tribunal earlier this month. He immediately resigned his post, turned himself in, and pleaded not guilty to war crimes. Former Serbian and Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic is on trial in the Hague and has been in detention there for three years.