Serbia – another obstacle overcome

In finally arresting Ratko Mladic, Serbia has overcome one of the prime obstacles to its European ambitions, whilst strengthening the foundations for peace and reconciliation throughout the Western Balkans.

The apprehension of Ratko Mladic marks a decisive moment in the history of Serbia and the former Yugoslavia. For over fifteen years, the former Bosnian Serb general – indicted on fifteen counts, including genocide and complicity in genocide – has successfully evaded capture, suggesting that he was aided and abetted by loyal and deeply-embedded elements within the Serbian state. Indeed, the timing of his arrest – ahead of a critical report by Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of The Hague Tribunal,  and with Serbia keen to secure EU candidate status – will invariably raise questions about whether Mladic could have been detained earlier. The challenge of securing the arrests of Mladic and Karadzic, however, reflects the challenge of eliminating the stains of the Milosevic-era; the remnants of which continue to inhibit and haunt Serbia’s progress.

Whilst the EU’s conditionality will be lauded as a prime motivating factor, it has played only an indirect role. The current Serbian government has grounded its political standing in being able to demonstrate tangible progress towards membership of the EU. “I believe that the doors for Serbia to joining the EU are open”, Tadic declared during the press conference to confirm Mladic’s arrest; on the very day that Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, visited Belgrade. With Tadic’s Democratic Party lagging behind the Serbian Progressive Party (who in previous months have mobilized tens of thousands of protesters to take to the streets of Belgrade), securing EU candidate status prior to elections schedule for spring 2012 has become of paramount importance. Apprehending Mladic was a major obstacle in this regard.

Kosovo too remains an important consideration. Extraditing Mladic will provide the Serbian government with greater leverage in the current negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, potentially helping them to secure support for a historic compromise that would allow both parties to continue down the path of EU accession. Aware of the potentially negative fallout of Mladic’s arrest, Tadic also used his press conference to reiterate calls for an independent UN-led investigation into the allegations of human organ trafficking in Kosovo, contained in a report by Dick Marty, the Council of Europe’s special rapporteur; whilst calling upon others in the region to reflect upon – and acknowledge – their own roles and responsibilties.

These respective considerations have certainly played a key role in encouraging the Serbian government to act upon anonymous tip-offs and others pieces of intelligence, whilst stepping up efforts to secure such information and restrict the logistical support Mladic received. Following Karadzic’s arrest, little in the way of formal investigation was conducted in order to determine how he evaded capture for so long. For Serbia to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the long-standing problem of organized crime, rooting out these elements of the security architecture is an urgent priority.

Today, however, President Tadic should be lauded for the decisive steps taken – in arresting Karadzic and Mladic, and issuing an apology for the Srebrenica massacre – to promote conflict transformation in the Western Balkans. Mladic’s apprehension will help soften attitudes towards Serbia in neighbouring countries, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, thereby removing one of the major barriers to improving regional and inter-ethnic relations. Mladic’s arrest also confirms that Serbia is committed to coming to terms with its role in the conflict of the nineties. Should others follow suit, then the basis for lasting peace in the region may finally have been found.

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