When Serbian police forces moved into the quiet village of Krusedol early in the morning of July 20 and arrested the country’s last fugitive war crimes suspect, they closed a chapter on a long and tortuous history.
This was an action that Serbia had to take if it is truly determined to put the shadow of the Milosevic era behind it.
On July 22, Goran Hadzic arrived in The Hague for his trial before the war crimes tribunal, and Serbians can finally begin to think seriously about setting down the road to integration into the European Union.
The sense of relief is palpable – even if it is tempered by an awareness of how many problems Serbia still has to overcome.
That may not sound very motivating or comforting, but this is simply the way it is when a country has spent more than a decade in a state of deep, thorough and comprehensive degradation. You cannot pull yourself out of it all simply through sheer willpower.
There is, first of all, the lingering problem of Kosovo and its status. Serbia refuses to accept the reality of Kosovo’s sovereignty.
Belgrade stubbornly insists that it will fight for Kosovo’s return, and continues to fuel nationalist sentiment and the spirit of the Milosevic era by supporting separatist Kosovo Serbs and defying the West.
A Milestone In Serbia's International Relations
Serbia’s relationship to Bosnia-Herzegovina remains, at best, uneasy and ill-defined. And then there are the countless internal structural problems of Serbia itself: ingrained corruption, lagging economic reform, a justice system mired in the past, struggling agriculture, excessive closeness of church and state, an import-dependent economy, murky privatization and crony capitalism, and the unresolved constitutional status of the province of Vojvodina and ethnic minorities. There will be work for many years to come.
Yet none of this changes the fact that the arrest of Hadzic is a milestone in Serbia’s relations with the international community. Without his capture Serbia would have remained in a position of international isolation that made any talk of accession to the European Union sound like a bad joke.
For this reason, July 20, 2011 must be regarded as a crucial moment in Serbian and regional history.
Though he never had the political or symbolic weight of Radovan Karadzic or Ratko Mladic, Goran Hadzic did serve as Karadzic's colleague during the war.
Hadzic was the president of the pseudo-state known as the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK), which Serb separatist forces created on the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Croatia.
The character of the RSK and the way it was established says a great deal about how Serbia fought its post-Yugoslav wars.
Serb troops and civilians pass a body in the Croation town of Vukovar, which Hadzic is accused of leveling in 1991.
RSK forces occupied territories with large Serb populations. Their troops then systematically and thoroughly “cleansed” these areas of the remaining Croats, who, in many of those places comprised a relative or absolute majority.
In this way, with sword and fire, Serb paramilitaries created new territories that were eager to join the expanded version of Serbia hiding behind the old name of Yugoslavia.
The artificial circumstances of its creation were reflected by its appearance on the map. The RSK consisted of three separate islands, an archipelago rather than a continuous territory. The regions of Eastern Slavonia and Baranja (where Hadzic comes from) became part of Serbia proper, while Western Slavonia with Kordun and Banija joined the Serb Republic that emerged from the ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The ideology behind the plans was one that needed people like Goran Hadzic in order to function. In the pre-war years he worked as the humble director of a village storage depot. After the war began, his role in the campaigns to impose Serb rule on the Krajina transformed him into a full-fledged warlord, a man with the power to decide over life and death.
In the event, the Bosnian Serb Republic, which still exists today, proved much more long-lasting than the eccentric territorial fiction of the RSK. It lasted for four years until Croatian forces finally re-captured it in 1995. (A last fragment of RSK territory remained under UN administration until 1998, when it was peacefully reincorporated into Croatia.)
In the end Goran Hadzic had no choice but to retreat to Serbia, undoubtedly believing that he could count on his fellow Serbs for support. He had, after all, done so much to defend their interests -- at least that's how he saw it.
Laying The Foundation For A New Era
To watch footage of Hadzic in the old days of his arrogant rule is to understand why his arrest is so important for the establishment of a meaningful and sustainable future for the region.
His departure for The Hague lays the foundation for a new era in which Serbia can no longer contemplate the pursuit of insane and bloody projects for the pursuit of “national glory.”
People in our part of the world often criticize the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for shortcomings, both real and imagined. But what we need to remember is that, without the tribunal, many of the warlords like Hadzic would have enjoyed freedom forever. Without the tribunal nothing within the territory of the former Yugoslavia would be any better than it was under Milosevic. Everything, in fact, would be much worse.
Goran Hadzic will have plenty of time to contemplate this during his long nights by the North Sea. With his arrest on July 20, his fate and Serbia's have finally parted ways. How much better it would have been for both sides if they had never joined forces in the first place.
Teofil Pancic reports for RFE/RL from Belgrade. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL