The former Croatian ambassador to Washington, Ivan Grdesic, says the start date for his country's negotiations to join the European Union is in doubt because of the EU's demand that Zagreb hand over to The Hague tribunal a former general indicted for war crimes. Mr. Grdesic, now a professor at the University of Zagreb, spoke Monday at Washington's Woodrow Wilson Center.

Mr. Grdesic is not optimistic that the former general, Ante Gotovina, will appear in The Hague prior to the scheduled March 17 start of Croatia's accession negotiations. The EU has made the talks conditional on General Gotovina's extradition.

Zagreb says the general is not in Croatia, that his whereabouts are unknown and that he is out of reach of the Croatian authorities. The war crimes tribunal says he is in Croatia.

General Gotovina was indicted for ethnic cleansing in connection with a 1995 Croatian offensive in Krajina in which at least 150 elderly Serbians were killed and 150,000 people were driven out of their homes.

However, Mr. Grdesic said the general, if he should ever appear before The Hague Tribunal, would be able to make a strong argument in his defense. "I think General Gotovina - and there is a consensus in the country that he has a strong case - that he blew it in a sense by not coming out and defending himself in the court. That there are a lot of elements that may show that some or most of the indictment is wrong," he said.

Many in Croatia regard General Gotovina as a hero who freed Krajina from Serbian occupiers. They are outraged that he was indicted by the war crimes tribunal.

Mr. Grdesic worries that if the impasse over General Gotovina persists, it will erode the already declining popular support in Croatia for joining the EU.

The 14-month-old government of Prime Minister Ivo Sanader has made EU membership the centerpiece of its foreign policy. It has expressed the hope that Croatia would join the EU by 2009 at the latest.

Neighboring Slovenia joined last May and Bulgaria and Romania are set to become members in 2007.

Mr. Grdesic says he believes Croatia and the EU will find a compromise and the accession negotiations will likely begin within the next three months.