Friday, 27 May 2011

Mladic arrest: Green light for Serbia in EU

Ratko Mladic, the Serbian general who orchestrated the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II in the 1990's, was arrested in Serbia yesterday. His continued freedom was the biggest issue blocking Serbia from being considered for entry into the EU. But the suspicious timing of the arrest, coming literally just as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was arriving in Belgrade for a planned state visit, has some commentators saying Serbia has not adopted an attitude of contrition but is instead being dragged along unwillingly by the necessity of EU membership.

Mladic led the Bosnian Serb military force when that country was rocked by its religious civil war from 1992 to 1995 between the Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs. He orchestrated not only the brutal three year siege of the capital Sarajevo but also the Srebrenica Massacre, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically slaughtered by Serb forces. He was indicted in asentia for crimes against humanity after the war, but he was harbored by the Serbs until 2002 when the country said it would cooperate with the international criminal court in The Hague. He then went into a sort of 'hiding in plain site'. He was spotted often at weddings and football games and even filmed at them. This despite a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture.

The reason is that the war criminal Mladic has remained unshakably popular in Serbia. A survey taken earlier this month, a week before the capture, showed that 78% of Serbs would not report Mladic to the authorities if they saw him. Only 34% said they would approve of Mladić's arrest, while 40% believe he is a hero. With this kind of attitude by the public, it's not surprising that successive Serbian governments have failed to aggressively search for him, even though his arrest has been a precondition for Serbia beginning accession talks with the EU.

But in 2008 Serbians elected a pro-EU president into office, in an election that sometimes seemed like a referendum on EU membership. When Boris Tadic beat out his pro-Russian rival, it was a signal to Brussels that Serbia had chosen the EU path. And yet it still took Tadic three years to arrest Mladic. And he announced the arrest just as the EU's foreign policy chief was arriving in Belgrade. So when exactly did the Serbian authorities arrest Mladic, and why did they wait until Ashton's arrival to announce it? And perhaps more importantly, how long before the arrest did the Serbian authorities know his location?

After the arrest was announced yesterday, Serbian authorities tightened security and banned public gatherings throughout the country. In Novi Sad, riot police had to block hundreds of demonstrators who attempted to break into the headquarters of the ruling Democratic Party. In the town where Mladic was arrested residents expressed support of Mladić to the media and waved Serbian and Russian flags.

Regardless of the circumstances, Mladic's arrest will undoubtedly mean that Serbia will start formal accession talks. The Dutch had already dropped their objections to the unofficial opening of these talks in 2009. But any eventual accession is likely a long way off, perhaps as long as ten years. Croatia is set to join the bloc next year, and an eventual membership for Bosnia is envisioned. But as the public reaction in Serbia to Mladic's arrest shows, emotions about the Balkan wars here are still raw. Even though the accession talks may start now, in five years the Serbian people could elect an anti-EU government and the talks could collapse. Serbia joining the EU is anything but a fait accompli.

There are still huge questions about what EU membership for the Western Balkan countries will bring. Will mutual EU membership make another war between them an impossibility and heal old wounds like it did for Western Europe in the decades after World War II? Or will the expansion of the EU to the Western Balkans open up a can of worms the EU is diplomatically ill-equipped to deal with? Only time will tell.

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