Instant View: Mladic's arrest is a historic moment for Serbia and for Europe

Ratko Mladic is on his way to trial, and to jail. Serbia must now be welcomed with open arms.

The Srebrenica graveyard and memorial
Daniel Hamilton
On 26 May 2011 14:24

A short while ago on Thursday, the Serbian government confirmed that Ratko Mladic, the former head of the Bosnian Serb army, had been apprehended.

With Mladic’s delivery to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) expected to take place within days (if not hours), the final act in the grim trilogy featuring Mladic himself, Slobodan Miloševic and Radovan Karadžic is now upon us. He will face trial for genocide and war crimes committed during the 1992 to 1995 Bosnian war.

As with the capture of Karadžic, Mladic's arrest would not have been possible without the cooperation of both President Boris Tadic’s administration and the Serbian Police force – an entity with a history of pursuing a political agenda radically distinct from that of the government.

Serbia must now be allowed to close this painful chapter in the country's history.

While questions about the future status of Kosovo continue to cause Serbia diplomatic headaches, Mladic's arrest removes the final formal hurdle to the country achieving EU membership – a goal first outlined in December 2009 when the country presented its application to then European Council President Fredrik Reinfeldt.

Serbia’s application for full EU membership follows the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2007 which, along with promises of trade liberalisation commits the country to fully cooperate with efforts to capture and prosecute war criminals. Mladic's arrest proves just how seriously the government took this undertaking.

Admittance to the European Union would follow the country’s existing membership of the NATO Partnership for Peace -- a mechanism by which non-NATO states can engage with the organisation on issues such as increasing joint action between members in fields such as disaster alleviation, combating terrorism and tackling illegal arms proliferation.

However, there are still other matters to contend with. Despite its reformist stance, many still allege Serbia intends to annex the Republika Srpska province of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While the territory’s Prime Minister Milorad Dodik has cited the international recognition of Kosovo as a precedent for Republika Srpska’s potential independence from the Bosnian Federation, the Tadic administration has cautiously commitment to a negotiated settlement on the future of the territory.

Indeed, the Serbian parliament’s decision last March to pass a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre suggests that the unification of the pro-Western Serb administration in Belgrade and the nationalist government in Banja Luka is beyond the realm of practicability. 

Tadic appears to be on the right track. But while media commentators give the current Serbian president the bulk of the credit for fashioning Serbia’s pro-Western stance, the country’s commitment to reform pre-dates his administration. 

The real credit for Serbia’s pro-Western path lies with former Prime Minister Zoran Dindic, gunned down by an ultra-nationalist in a cowardly fashion in a Belgrade street in March 2003 for daring to stand up to the tawdry remnants of the Miloševic regime.

Thanks to the pro-EU path Dindic steered his country on, ultranationalist rhetoric plays almost no role in Serbian political life today.  Indeed, it was Dindic’s message of modernity and engagement with the European Union and United States which led the Serbian people rather than the international community to topple Miloševic.

In offering Serbia the chance of EU membership and acceptability on the international stage, the West has achieved something that ten years ago would have been seen as impossible: a unity of purpose among the political classes founded on respect for minorities, sensitivity in diplomatic relations with its neighbours, and a long-term vision of the country’s future. 

On a political level, Serbian nationalism has been redefined on the basis of national purpose rather than the rhetoric of ethnic superiority which led to the fervour behind the concept of achieving a ‘Greater Serbia’.

The once-dominant Radical Party led by Vojislav Seselj, (who is himself on trial at the ICTY for war crimes) lies in tatters.  Indeed, its caucus in the Serbian Parliament collapsed in 2008 after a schism between MPs opposed to and favourable towards EU membership.

The result was the establishment of the Progressive Party which, if opinion polls are to be believed, is the largest force in Serbian politics today. Party leader Tomislav Nikolic’s once tough rhetoric has been replaced with a pragmatic and conciliatory tone. Clearly focussed on EU membership, the Party’s constitution commits it to respect for minorities, regional autonomy and the rule of law.

Serbia has changed – and it’s high-time we recognised that reality. The Conservative-led government in London shouldn’t hesitate for one minute in backing Serbian EU accession.  They should be the idea’s biggest champion.

Daniel Hamilton is Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch and an expert on the Balkans and the Caucasus. He writes in a personal capacity. Follow him at @danielrhamilton

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