Serbia after Ratko Mladic: the arrest and the rest

The latest opinion poll on the subject revealed that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed wouldn’t have informed the police about the fugitive’s secret location had it been known to them. Fortunately, their assistance was not needed.
Milan Marinkovic
13 June 2011

The man accused of the bloodiest war crime on European soil since the Second World War, the Srebrenica genocide, is finally where he should, and probably could, have been a lot earlier. But, as many would argue, better late than never.

General Ratko Mladic was arrested when even unshakable optimists began to lose hope it would ever happen. On the other hand, the timing of the arrest has raised suspicions among many that the authorities actually knew the whereabouts of Mr. Mladic for years, inasmuch as the capture took place on the very day of Ms. Catherine Ashton’s visit to Serbia and amid Mr. Serge Brammertz’s sharp criticism of Belgrade for not doing enough to find the indicted at large.

Predictably, Serbian president Boris Tadic readily dismissed all the speculations as “rubbish”. I suppose Mr. Tadic is right. After all, the president should know best where the truth lies. Yet, the president could, sometimes at least, ask himself why people are so frequently disposed to distrust him.

Sarcasm aside, for the Serbian ruling coalition it is virtually a matter of life and death to secure the status of a candidacy for EU membership by the end of the year in an attempt to restore Serbia’s credibility with voters. And for that to happen, full cooperation with the Hague Tribunal is a necessary precondition. Necessary, but certainly not the only one. While the capture of Ratko Mladic is likely to improve the international image of the country in the short run, there are a number of substantial reforms which have yet to be implemented.

Anyway, the Serbian president didn’t wait too long to spoil this latest achievement with a new yet old mistake. Almost immediately after having received praise for putting General Mladic behind bars, Boris Tadic decided to boycott the summit in Warsaw and, consequently, the US president Barack Obama. The reason, of course, was the presence at the meeting of Mr.Tadic’s counterpart from Kosovo. And only a few days later the Serbian president repeated the same mistake by refusing to attend the national holiday of Italy even though this country is among the most supportive of Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union and one of its most important economic partners. Mr. President has obviously forgotten that good relationships with neighbours are also indispensable for EU membership. Business as usual, a cynic would say: one step forward, two steps back. 

Nevertheless, Serbia will probably be granted candidate status as a reward for the long-awaited closure of the ‘case Mladic’. But so what? You can label me a killjoy for what I am going to say, but earning candidate status really means nothing in terms of when, if ever, a country will become a full member. A perfect example of this is Turkey, a country which is a far more prominent player in international affairs than Serbia and, no less importantly, a member of NATO.

However, the prospect of a ‘Turkish scenario’ is not the worst nightmare Serbia could face. What prevents Serbia from making substantial progress is its inability to understand what Europe really means. While the EU is a system built on clear rules and principles, political process in Serbia is full of improvisation. If Serbia stopped improvising, it would become a genuine part of Europe regardless of official membership. By the same token, if the EU began to improvise, it would no longer remain what it is.

Another reason for concern is a notable decline in support for the European integration of Serbia among the people. Those approving the idea, amounting to approximately two-thirds of the population at the point when the actual government was formed, have since then dropped to below 50 percent. This downward trend has much to do with the regime’s failure to address the overwhelming economic and social crisis in an appropriate way, which has led many to equate the poor quality of their lives with the Government’s nominally pro-European policy.

Yet, doesn’t all this sound much too pessimistic? If circumstances were normal, these days the whole of Serbia would feel a great sense of relief. I mean, bringing someone who irreversibly devastated the lives of so many innocents to justice is something any normal person can celebrate. Oh, I guess I should now apologize: this is an insult to the thousands, if not millions, of my compatriots if the latest opinion poll on the subject is to be believed, which revealed that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed wouldn’t have informed the police about the fugitive’s secret location had it been known to them. Fortunately, their assistance was not needed. 

Having read this, an outsider may be surprised that eleven years after the purported democratic revolution, such large numbers of Serbs still regard figures like Ratko Mladic as heroes. But let me just remind you how vast the support was among the masses for Slobodan Milosevic when he first rose to power, for all his hawkishness. Many of those who later protested against him were not angry because he launched the wars but because he had lost them. Such mindsets have basically remained unchanged, mostly due to the opportunism of Milosevic’s successors.

Yes, the truth is sometimes sad, sometimes even cruel, but always illuminating. On its road to European Union, Serbia will have to overcome formal obstacles imposed from outside. To become a true member of the European family, however, it must surmount its own mental barriers. The Catch-22 is that these processes are inherently interdependent.

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