Serbia, which has long-sought membership in the European Union, is one step closer to that reality after the arrest of Ratko Mladic. The search for Mr. Mladic, which had spanned more than a decade, had been one of the major stumbling blocks for Serbia’s membership in the E.U. With the arrest of Mladic, Serbia is attempting to jump start negotiations that have been stalled for a number of years and establish a date when E.U. accession talks can begin in earnest.
Serbian President Boris Tadic said following Ratko Mladic’s arrest, “The arrest is good news for Serbia, for the stability of the region and gives new impetus to Serbia’s EU accession process…His arrest is convincing proof of Serbia’s efforts and cooperation with the [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia].”
“I believe that this operation has proved that the services of the Republic of Serbia have made this country safe and have secured the rule of law, and that our work on the search for war crime suspects will increase Serbia’s moral credibility in the international arena and raise all security capacities to a higher level. The greatest part of the work was done by the BIA,” added President Tadic.
The Netherlands had been particularly reluctant of approving accession talks given its failure to prevent the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Dutch peacekeepers stood idly by while military forces, under the orders of Gen. Ratko Mladic, stormed Srebrenica and slaughtered 8,000 Bosnians, mainly men and boys. Ratko Mladic is also implicated in ordering the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from 1992 to 1996, during which an estimated 10,000 people were killed. The Netherlands had previously insisted that all 27 E.U. member-states had to agree to accession talks on the grounds that Belgrade was fully cooperating with investigations on the whereabouts of Mr. Mladic and others associated with the atrocities committed during the Bosnian War.
Serbia originally applied for E.U. membership in 2009. Even without the capture of Mladic, E.U. officials had been moving ahead with accession talks with Serbia. On December 19, 2009 the visa requirement for Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia was dropped to allow Serbs to travel freely in the Schengen area. President Boris Tadic of Serbia said at the time that it represented “a practical and clear step towards European integration.” Kosovoans are still denied visa-free travel because Kosovo’s independence from Serbia is not recognized by all 27 member-states of the E.U.
However positive the step of arresting Ratko Mladic is in the eyes of many E.U. member-states some have suggested that Goran Hadzic must also be turned over for prosecution. Mr. Hadzic was indicted by the ICTY for crimes committed during the Bosnian war. He is the last remaining fugitive still in hiding. Mr. Mladic’s health is likely to delay his extradition to The Hague to stand trial for at least a few days. Milos Saljic, Ratko Mladic’s lawyer, filed an appeal attempting to block Mr. Mladic’s extradition on the grounds that he is mentally and physically unfit to stand trial.
The appeal is likely to be dismissed by the three-judge panel and this would quickly be followed by Mr. Mladic being transferred to The Hague. “I believe the trial will not go ahead, because I do not believe Mladic will see the start of that process in front of the Hague Tribunal,” said Milos Saljic, Mladic’s lawyer.
Mladic’s arrest potentially offers the Balkan region a chance at reconciliation. Similar to France and Germany following the Second World War, European integration had the benefit of bringing together those two historic enemies for the sake of economic growth. European integration eventually brought into the fold Ireland, Britain and Italy and worked to bury long-held animosities. With the arrest of Mladic, this could offer the Balkans the clearest path at regional reconciliation.
“I think crime cannot stay unpunished…especially the crimes against humanity, the crimes of genocide…I think it’s very important regarding the reconciliation in the Balkans in general,” said Bosnian Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj, while attending a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Indonesia.
Despite the arrest of Mladic, Serbia’s membership in the E.U. faces a number of other obstacles. Its judiciary is still criticized as less than fully functioning and the issue of Kosovo remains a major stumbling block. Serbia vehemently opposed Kosovo independence in 2008. The E.U. recently brokered Serbian and Kosovoan talks that dealt with a whole host of issues including the most important issue of Kosovoan sovereignty. While no agreement has been reached the talks are ongoing.
One important step that could potentially guarantee Serbia’s E.U. membership bid would be for Serbia to recognize independence for Kosovo. This would also have the affect of lessening tensions with many E.U. member-states and Russia. At the time that Kosovo announced its independence from Serbia, Russia was very vocal in its opposition to any European states recognizing Kosovo as an independent state. At the time that Kosovo’s independence was brought before the U.N. Security Council Russia blocked their efforts and has since continued to lobby against its independence.
During a recent visit to Serbia by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin he had this to say regarding Serbia’s bid to join the E.U. and its relations to Russia, “We will carefully watch and work jointly that European integration doesn’t harm relations between Russia and Serbia.”
Another issue that might block Serbian membership in the E.U. has to deal with anti-enlargement sentiments that run throughout the Eurozone countries. With financial problems facing Greece and Portugal, E.U. member-states are in no mood to potentially have to bail out another member-state down the road. If these fears can be overcome then Serbia faces an improved chance at gaining membership. Even as far back as 2005, before the global economic crises hit and the E.U. faced its largest identity crises to date, E.U. officials expressed confidence that Serbia would eventually be admitted.
During a 2005 Brussels E.U. summit, the former European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Olli Ilmari Rehn, told former Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, “We are concerned about the worries of our citizens and therefore we have to be cautious as regards taking any new commitments in the field of enlargement, but at the same time it is equally important to keep our existing commitments.”
If the arrest of Ratko Mladic offers emotional closure to the families of the thousands of his victims is too soon to tell. Undoubtedly, his arrest will leave more questions than answers. “For all those years this monster was hidden by Serbia and they knew where he was…Now they are handing him over to justice. Well, better late than never. But I’m afraid of another trial without a verdict,” said Kada Hotic, whose brothers and husband were killed in Srebrenica.