The arrest of Europe’s most wanted man, alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic, has been hailed as a milestone in the quest to bring justice to the Western Balkans and in Serbia’s path to international rehabilitation.
After 16 years on the run, Mr. Mladic was arrested in the village of Lazarevo, northern Serbia, bringing an end to one of history’s longest manhunts. With international backing, homes had been searched in Bosnia and Serbia, but Mladic – perhaps the single biggest villain of the war – always seemed to be a step ahead.
The arrest has been widely hailed as a huge success for Serbia and its Westward-leaning president, Boris Tadic. Mr. Tadic declared that the arrest had “closed one chapter of our recent history that will bring us one step closer to full reconciliation in the region” and that Serbia had “wiped the stain” away.
He added “that the doors for Serbia to joining the EU are open," clearly linking Belgrade’s success in tracking down Mladic to European Union accession. Serbia’s efforts to extradite indicted war criminals have long been a sticking point with Brussels and much of the rest of the international community.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, hosting the G8 summit in the French resort Deauville, called the arrest "a very courageous decision by the Serbian president. It is one more step towards Serbia's integration one day into the European Union."
The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, called the arrest “an important step forward for Serbia and for international justice.” Mr. Barroso went on to say that a quick transfer of Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague and further full cooperation with the court remained essential on Serbia’s path towards EU-membership.
Tadic's EU ambitions
“In the past the Serbian authorities were actively protecting Mladic,” says Marko Prelec, Balkans Project Director at the International Crisis Group, speaking from Dubrovnik, Croatia. “But under President Tadic, Serbia was maximally engaged in the search for Mladic. The arrest is a big success for Tadic, but it also has to be seen as a big success for the European Union, which kept the pressure on.”
A recent survey (first published by Croatian daily Vecernji) suggests that 51 percent of Serbians oppose sending Mladic to tribunal and 40 percent would call him a “hero” – as do T-shirts readily available in many Serbian towns.
Nationalist protests seem likely, and the Serbian Radical Party, the main opposition force, has branded the arrest “a blow to our national interest” carried out by “traitors." Of more concern to Tadic, however, may be the unfinished business that remains after the euphoria dies down.
The EU requires Serbia not just to extradite Mladic but to provide “full cooperation” in his prosecution, which may lead to awkward questions about how the general was able to lie low in Serbian territory, about 60 miles from Belgrade.
“If they didn’t know where he was, it was because they didn’t want to know,” says Mr. Bassuener, who suggested that Serbia has been using extraditions as bargaining chips in international negotiations.
The Kosovo problem
With Mladic arrested, there is only one big stumbling block left on the path to Serbia’s EU membership, and that is Kosovo. Serbia does not acknowledge Kosovo as an independent state, but rather sees it as a UN-governed entity within its sovereign territory, even though 75 countries, among them the US, Britain, France, Germany, and China, recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence from 2008.
“If you wanted to be cynical, you might argue that Serbia is trying to bargain with the EU, “ Mr. Prelec says. “But using Mladic’s arrest to take the pressure off the Kosovo issue is not going to work. Serbia has to understand that it has to address the problem sooner or later. No one expects them to recognize Kosovo independence straight away, but Europe will want to see some progress in the EU-sponsored dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, before they offer Serbia an accession date.”
Mladic's alleged crimes
Mladic was the military commander the Bosnian Serb army (VRS) from 1992 to 1996 and has been indicted by the ICTY on 15 counts relating to his role in the Bosnian war.
He was most notoriously involved in the Srebrenica massacre, when more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by the VRS under his command, but some charges relate to his command in the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted more than 1,400 days and resulted in the deaths of around 10,000 civilians, with a further 56,000 wounded.
Mladic is alleged to have ordered the shelling of the city to drive the citizens “insane," as well as a campaign of sniping from the hills. At Srebrenica, Mladic posed for the cameras handing out chocolates to children and reassurances to Bosnian Muslims that they were safe, before the killing started.