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Croatia Still Hopeful EU Membership Talks Will Start Soon

The former Yugoslav republic of Croatia is hopeful that its delayed membership negotiations with the European Union will begin within the next few months, despite its inability thus far to find a fugitive general indicted by the Hague war crimes tribunal. The Croatian foreign minister has been in Washington for consultations with U.S. officials.

Foreign Minister Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic told a gathering at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies Thursday that Croatia is doing all it can to find former General Ante Gotovina.

Posters with photo of fugitive General Ante Gotovina and word 'Croat', seen at entrance of Union of Croatian Veterans of homeland war office in Zagreb
The European Union is conditioning membership negotiations on Croatia fully cooperating with the tribunal and turning over the fugitive general, whom Croatia believes has fled the country. He is accused of mistreating Serb civilians during a 1995 military campaign.

Croatia was to have begun membership negotiations last March. Tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte says she needs more time to determine whether Croatia is fully cooperating in the search for General Gotovina. Foreign Minister Grabar-Kitarovic is optimistic.

"We believe that we are putting effort into resolving this single issue. And we hope that the criterion of full cooperation, in that sense, will be defined in terms of what it is possible for Croatia to do," he said.

Because he led the successful military campaign that drove Serb forces out of Croatia during the wars of Yugoslav succession, many Croats regard General Gotovina as a hero.

A recent survey says support for EU membership in Croatia has fallen to 34 percent, in part because of public anger linking the Gotovina issue with membership negotiations. Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic, a former minister of European integration, is eager for the membership talks to begin.

"The beginning of negotiations would be a very important signal not only to Croatia but for the entire neighborhood. So far Croatia has made a lot of progress, and I dare say the most progress of all the countries of southeast Europe," he said.

Neighboring Slovenia is the only former Yugoslav republic to have been admitted to the EU Bulgaria and Romania, much poorer than Croatia, have been promised admission by 2008. Sharon Fisher, an east European specialist at Global Insights consultancy in Washington agrees that membership negotiations would be positive for the entire Balkans region.

"It's very important for all of those countries to have something to look forward to, some concrete result for all the policy changes they're implementing," she said.

With its 25 members at odds over finances and with recent French and Dutch votes against a proposed constitution, the EU has entered a period of uncertainty and plans for further expansion into eastern Europe has been called into question.