Accessibility links

What Can Serbia Expect In Return For Mladic Handover?

  • Daisy Sindelar

Serbian President Boris Tadic gestures during a press conference in Belgrade on May 26 to announce the capture of war crimes fugitive and wartime Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic.

Serbian President Boris Tadic gestures during a press conference in Belgrade on May 26 to announce the capture of war crimes fugitive and wartime Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic.

Serbian President Boris Tadic, confirming the arrest of the world's most notorious war crimes suspect, was quick to say the handover of Ratko Mladic to international authorities would be based not on "calculations" but on his country's "moral dignity."

But that didn't keep him from making a few demands.

"I call for an independent investigation with a mandate from the UN Security Council on the serious allegations of organ trafficking in Kosovo, our autonomy Kosovo," Tadic announced.

For nearly 16 years, Serbia's relationship with Europe has been stunted by its failure to deliver Mladic to the Hague international war crimes tribunal.

Even the delivery of high-profile indictees, notably former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2001 and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008, did little to amplify Serbia's status.

Until it could muster the political will to hand over Mladic -- a man who had been witnessed living openly in Belgrade, attending football matches, and seemingly enjoying army protection -- the Serbian government would not be able to persuade the European Union that it deserved the attention bestowed on more stable Balkan neighbors like Slovenia and Croatia.

In the meantime, it saw its economy slide into ruin, its status as regional leader dissolve, and -- most wrenchingly, for many of its residents -- its restive province of Kosovo declare independence with broad international approval.

Now, with the 69-year-old Mladic in custody, Serbia may finally be in a position to get what it wants.

This could start with EU candidacy, a crucial step toward membership, a matter which the bloc's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, speaking in Belgrade, said she was prepared to approach with "renewed energy."

But Ivan Vejvoda, the head of the Belgrade-based Balkan Trust for Democracy, says it could also extend as far as investigating Kosovo for alleged organ trafficking in the 1990s, a crime in which many of the victims were said to be ethnic Serbs.

Political Stakes

The organ-trafficking issue is a key grievance for Serbia, which has suggested it is unfairly singled out as a perpetrator, and never a sufferer, of wartime atrocities.

"I would say that now all the pieces have been put into place for Serbia to get both [EU] candidacy and the date of beginning of negotiations, which would probably be sometime next year. I think that would not be giving anything extra, it would simply acknowledge that this condition has been fulfilled and Serbia can move forward," Vejvoda says. "As to the investigation on the allegations of the Dick Marti report [on Kosovo organ-trafficking allegations], I think that everyone has agreed that it's very important to have a thorough investigation into this. I think it is the desire of the Serbian government that it be conducted by the UN."

The atmosphere of open bargaining has stirred speculation in many corners -- particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where memories of Mladic's brutality remain acute -- that Serbia turned over the Bosnian Serb commander not when they finally found him, but when it was politically expedient.

Tadic, a pro-Western moderate, is running for reelection in 2013, at a time when mounting poverty and isolation are contributing to an increasingly volatile political mood.

Tadic is likely to face stiff competition from Tomislav Nikolic, a onetime ally of former Radical Party head and war crimes suspect Vojislav Seselj. Nikolic's newly formed Progressive Party has embraced EU entry as a rallying cry.

Unpopular Populism

The humiliating prospect of a party with a strong nationalist base seizing the brass ring of EU entry away from Tadic's Democrats undoubtedly lent urgency to the president's efforts to speed up Serbia's integration efforts.

But Daniel Korski, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, says he is confident Tadic did not harbor Mladic as a bargaining chip to play when the time was right for his campaign. The president, he says, may even suffer in the short term if nationalists react angrily to the Mladic handover.

It's vital, Korski says, for Tadic to now demonstrate to his public that he may have made a politically unpopular choice, but that he did it for populist reasons.

"In the run-up to an election, this is not exactly going to endear him to an increasing nationalist majority in the country," Korski says. "Polls are suggesting that in a runoff with the opposition leader, that Boris Tadic would basically lose. So I think it's very important to see it from his perspective. He needs to communicate not just to the international community that he wants something in return, but he also needs to say to his own electorate, 'Look, you may not agree with this, but we're going to get some goodies in return and I'm going to guarantee that for you.'"

In The Long Term

It remains to be seen how quickly the EU will now act on Serbian membership or more tangential questions like Kosovo. Korski concedes that the bloc, preoccupied with the political upheaval in North Africa, may not currently put a priority on organ-trafficking allegations. The possibility of EU countries reversing their decision on Kosovo independence is even more remote.

A greater uncertainty is how Mladic's journey through the international justice system may affect the political mood at home. The Hague has so far failed to deliver judgments in several of its most high-profile cases: Milosevic died of a heart attack in 2006 before his trial was concluded, and the trials of both Seselj and Karadzic have been hampered by bureaucratic difficulties.

It may be months or even years before the court initiates a trial of Mladic, who has reportedly suffered a stroke and is already in poor health. All the same, says Pavol Demes, an analyst with The German Marshall Fund of the United States, it is valuable for Serbia to see the international community takes steps toward delivering justice in the case of the world's most notorious war crimes suspect.

"The Serbian population is already accustomed to the fact that their bandit-gangsters and criminals are not only paying the price domestically, but that the international community is engaged in deciding about their destiny as well," Demes says. "Sometimes one can imagine that this is psychologically not so easy [for Serbia]. But I think that it is also part of the catharsis through which this country needs to go due to atrocities created by the Milosevic [regime]."

Christian Caryl contributed to this report from Washington

Show comments