Serbia's catalyst for stability

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic signals that nationalists no longer speak for Serbia.

With the arrest at long last of Radovan Karadzic on charges of genocide, Serbia has finally chosen 21st-century Europe over 19th-century chauvinism. We can all cheer, Serbs most of all, and thank the magnetic attraction of the European Union for this long overdue shift.

The country is now on its way to becoming a "normal, boring, democratic" Serbia, says Ivan Vejvoda, executive director of the Balkan Trust for Democracy in Belgrade.

Oddly enough, it all happened because the Democratic Party – the party that engineered the ouster of strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 2000 Serbian election – has just joined the remnants of Milosevic's Socialist Party in a coalition government.

Last May, in what seemed to be a polemical single-issue election about the "loss" of a Kosovo that Belgrade had not ruled for eight years, Serbs shifted slightly. Instead of reelecting the ultranationalist Radicals as the largest parliamentary party, enough voters rejected chauvinism and the economic stagnation this brought and gave the plurality to a bloc led by the Democratic Party.

The scale-tipping Socialists first tried to negotiate a coalition government with their natural allies – the Radicals and the party of the Kosovo-obsessed Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. However, the Socialists longed to put the Milosevic legacy behind them, end their political marginalization, and go respectable. A surprise coalition with the Democratic Party of Serbian President Boris Tadic gave them their chance.

It took the Socialist party leadership more than a month to persuade their own hard-liners not to revolt and stage a coup over this "betrayal" of Milosevic's memory. It took President Tadic just as long to override the scandalized skeptics in the Democratic Party over his "betrayal" of the party's anti-Milosevic identity.

Democratic critics of Tadic found fault in the deal that made Socialist leader Ivica Dacic deputy prime minister and official head of Serbia's murky security services. Many doubted that he would ever confront the security forces that for more than a decade have hidden the two most-wanted war crimes fugitives from the 1995 massacre of 8,000 unarmed Bosnian men and boys – Karadzic as political leader of the militant Bosnian Serbs and Ratko Mladic as the commanding general at Srebrenica.

What finally swayed the Socialists, however, was the Serbs' desire – in common with all the other post-cold-war Yugoslav successor states – to join the rich, peaceful (and post-nationalist) European Union. The Socialists turned pro-Europe in order to get the Serb economy moving again. And they stopped opposing the EU's requirement that Serbia extradite these fugitives to the international war crimes court in The Hague for trial before it could become an EU candidate and receive the generous financial support the EU offers.

To be sure, the new coalition won't end all Serb anger, especially in the older generation. The Radicals – who once outdid strongman Milosevic in their zeal for a Greater Serbia and whose incumbent leader, Vojislav Seselj, is himself on trial for war crimes at The Hague – will still hurl diatribes against a Europe that allegedly stole Kosovo from Serbia. And it will still take a struggle to dislodge the residual state-within-a-state of Milosevic's secret services.

But as of this summer, the ultranationalists no longer speak for Serbia. The Socialists have become pragmatic. Ordinary Serbs are tired of heroics about the 14th-century battle of Blackbird Field in Kosovo that scorn Europe and put no food on the table. Enough Serbian law-enforcement units have joined the top army leadership in supporting democracy and rule of law to arrest Karadzic.

Stay tuned for the arrest of Ratko Mladic – and the end of the Serbian black hole at the center of the Balkans.

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist and former Monitor correspondent, is the author of "Endgame in the Balkans."

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