ONLINE ONLY: Serbia Has Found Its Soul

The capture of Radovan Karadzic offers hope for the future of Serbia

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Until a few days ago, the history of the European Union’s engagement with Serbia was a dispiriting one. The EU, having failed catastrophically over Bosnia in 1992-1995, sought a ‘second chance’ in the Balkans, by throwing itself into the reconstruction of Bosnia and bringing Serbia closer to Europe. It promptly failed again, or was in danger of doing so, because it had abandoned strict conditionality in permitting association talks with Serbia.

In the paradoxical view of one anonymous European Union official: ‘The EU compensates for the war by being overly positive on Serbia’. Anybody who observed Belgrade’s backsliding on the arrest of war criminals and the implementation of Police Reform could only agree. The picture was not much better in Bosnia, where ‘Republika Srbska’ continues to obstruct meaningful integration and reconciliation. Only in Slovenia and Croatia has the European project made really decisive headway, but there more under their own steam then as the result of any moves on the part of Brussels.

The capture of Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and a man co-responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands more, therefore marks a sea change in Serbian politics. The new anti-nationalist, or at least anti-radical nationalist, Serbian government obviously feels strong enough to risk such a controversial move; the fact that it is made up of President Boris Tadic’s Democrats and the Socialist party once led by President Slobodan Milosevic is an added irony. Only a few months ago, the Kosovar declaration of independence sparked vicious riots and even resulted in arson attacks on the United States embassy. So far, touch wood, the response to the arrests has been even more muted than the reaction to the arrest of Milosevic in 2001, the low-key nature of which surprised many. Perhaps predictably, the Socialist party, which controls the new Interior Ministry, has put out a statement denying any involvement in the arrest

Of course, none of this would have happened without substantial Western pressure, and the carrot of ultimate entry into the European Union. As James Lyon, a well respected Balkan analyst for the International Crisis Group has remarked: ‘This is happening because the new government is committed to European integration and is committed to meeting its international obligations. And the new government clearly wants to move forward and better its relations with the European Union.It is also quite clear that the government is aware that Hague cooperation is one of the conditions for bettering its relations with the European Union’. Certainly, the political change at the top loosened some teeth in Serbia’s Security and Information agency, which many believe shielded both Karadzic for over a decade.

The real crunch will come if and when the new government moves to arrest Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader, who was more directly involved in many of the war’s most terrible massacres, in particular the murder of about 7000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995. He is probably more closely guarded than Karadzic and is certainly more popular as a ‘war hero’. Apprehending Mladic will be a much more hazardous venture, and we should be correspondingly appreciative if and when it does take place.

One way or the other, a new geopolitics of the Balkans is now possible. The arrest marks a defeat for Moscow, which had long played the nationalist and anti-western card in Serbia, and which still maintains a strong grip over both the Serbian energy supply and the imagination of many Serbian Orthodox Pan-Slavists. It opens the way for membership of the European Union and, one hopes, ultimately of NATO as well. One of the last gaps in the creation of consolidated European democratic geopolitical space from Britain to the Bosphorus, from Scandinavia to Sicily, is in the process of closing.

Belgrade has seen such sharp transformations before, of course, and they did not always end happily. In March 1941 for example, the pro-Axis government in Belgrade was ejected by allied-leaning officers, who repudiated the pact with Hitler’s Germany. Winston Churchill famously remarked that ‘Yugoslavia has found its soul’. Shortly after, Hitler invaded, the Yugoslav capital was heavily bombed and the whole country fell under brutal occupation, accompanied by a lacerating civil war. No such Armageddon looms today, but there are still demons on the loose in Serbian political life, in the security apparatus, in intellectual circles, and in public opinion. Much of the population had still not quite come to terms with what was done in their name during the 1990s. Belgrade will therefore need help, rhetorical and practical, to make the last leap into Europe by arresting Ratko Mladic. Now is the time for Europe to reach out. Serbia has once more begun to find its soul, and we must make sure that it does not lose it again.