What the arrest of Ratko Mladic means

Sixteen years after the end of the war in Bosnia, the arrest of one of its biggest criminals is not only a great day for international justice and the conflict’s victims, but the opportunity for the Balkans to finally move past its dark history.

Thousands of people were slaughtered at the hands of General Ratko Mladic, who is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and violation of the laws of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. That he was hiding all this time in Serbia was a constant reminder of injustice and impunity. Mladic was a huge barrier to reconciliation between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, even as an impotent fugitive. During the 1990s, a series of regional wars, often falling along ethnic lines, splintered Yugoslavia into today’s Balkan states. In what is now known as Bosnia, Serbian soldiers backed by Belgrade, sieged the city of Sarajevo and fought against both Bosnian Muslims and Croats. The war – which lasted from 1992 to 1995 – was marked by ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities, perhaps the most famous being the Srebrenica massacre, where Serbian forces led by Mladic killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in just five days.

Srebrenica caught the world’s attention, and greater international involvement in the conflict eventually led to the Dayton Accords, which divided Bosnian territory into largely autonomous entities. By the end of the fighting, about 100,000 had died.

Serbian President Boris Tadic deserves credit for Mladic’s arrest, along with Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Serge Brammertz, and the wider international community. They persisted to ensure that Mladic faces justice. Just last week Mr. Brammertz said that Serbia was not doing enough to capture Mladic or a second remaining fugitive, Goran Hadzic. President Tadic promised today that Hadzic is next.

Mladic must be swiftly extradited to The Hague to face trial and bear the full responsibility for his crimes. Once this is done, the pathway for Serbia’s European Union candidacy will be knocked open. Belgrade has submitted its EU candidacy application and the European Commission seems to be positively inclined to say that the country has met many of the technical requirements to reach candidacy status this fall. It will then be up to the member states to agree, or not.

It is telling that Mladic was captured the day that EU High Representative Catherine Ashton traveled to Belgrade and days after President of the Commission Manuel Barroso made a trip to Serbia.

EU accession has clearly served as a golden carrot to secure Mladic’s arrest; without the incentive of EU candidacy, it would have been much easier for Serbia to forget Mladic. Clearly, the enlargement issue holds sway, and the EU should more explicitly use it to encourage reform and conflict prevention and resolution. This is true for not only Serbia, but Bosnia, Croatia and Albania as well.

But Serbia’s work is not finished. In the coming months it must normalize relations with its neighbors, especially Kosovo and Bosnia. While it is unlikely that it will recognize Kosovo, it can do more to work with Pristina to implement practical measures to improve people’s daily lives, and to help secure the rule of law in North Kosovo.

In Bosnia, it should make crystal clear that it supports Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and won’t tolerate provocative moves such a popular referendums on issues that are not of state competency. These are not difficult steps for Serbia to take in the current climate, when EU member states are highly supportive of Serbia’s accession plans.

Not only is Mladic’s arrest important, but so too is the reaction of average Serbs. So far it has been extremely balanced and accepting. On the morning of the Mladic’s detention, President Tadic said that his arrest was necessary to restore Serbian honor. This is indeed a time for Serbs, but also the rest of the Balkan population to recognize that terrible crimes were perpetuated in their name, but those who committed the crimes will face justice.

Mladic and his ilk should never be allowed to become local heroes; all people of the Balkans should clearly see them for who they are: ruthless cold blooded war criminals. This will provide the basis needed for reconciliation and forgiveness.

While there has been marked progress since the end of the war, much of the country is still divided along ethnic lines, there has been no state government formed since the October 2010 elections, political tensions between all parties are increasing while the economy is in a slump.

In just a few weeks, Croatia should become an EU member, and a key obstacle in the way of Serbia’s accession has now been removed. The western Balkans is turning the page on its dark past and moving gradually, but surely, into the European family where Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks will have no need or place for people like Mr. Mladic.

Author: Sabine Freizer

Program Director, Europe. Sabine Freizer is the Istanbul-based Director of the Europe Program. In this role, Sabine oversees projects covering the Caucasus (North and South), Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey and Cyprus. Before joining Crisis Group in 2004, she served as Political Officer in the OSCE Election Observation Missions in Azerbaijan and Georgia from 2003 to 2004, as Human Dimensions/Legal Expert to the OSCE Central Asia Liaison Office in Tashkent from 1999 to 2000 and Democratization Officer in the OSCE Mission to Bosnia in 1996-1998. She has a PhD from the London School of Economics, and a Masters from the College of Europe (Bruges, Belgium) which she obtained as a Fulbright Scholar.

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