Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

No Mladic, no Talks

Despite Belgrade's failure to arrest General Ratko Mladic and other war crimes suspects, the European Union is apparently considering the resumption of talks on the so-called Stabilization and Association Agreement, which allows for expanded trade and is a first step toward membership in the bloc.

But caving in on the issue of bringing war criminals to justice would send the worst possible signal and risk reinflaming tensions in the Balkans.

All the other Balkan states have cooperated fully with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague. Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro long ago turned over all their war crimes indictees. Serbia remains the lone holdout and is demanding that it be held to a lower standard than its neighbors, even though it was the prime instigator of the wars of the 1990s.

In mid-July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic conducted the organized slaughter of nearly 8,000 civilians around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. This was the worst single massacre in Europe since the end of World War II and it occurred under the gaze of UN peacekeepers and EU diplomats.

On Feb. 27, the International Court of Justice in the Hague, for the first time in its 61-year history, found a state — Serbia — guilty of violating the UN Convention on Genocide. The World Court ruled not only that genocide had occurred at Srebrenica, but that Serbia was guilty of failing to prevent it, and that the country was in direct violation of the convention for having failed to transfer Mladic to the Hague.

Long sought by the tribunal, Mladic lived openly in Serbia for most of the last decade. He retired from the Yugoslav Army with a full pension in 2002, signed by then-president Vojislav Kostunica, and received protection from Serbian security structures until only recently, even though Kostunica and others claim to have had no knowledge of his whereabouts. Kostunica has worked hard to besmirch the tribunal's reputation, claiming it to be biased and anti-Serbian. He fought the transfer of the former dictator Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague and has publicly denigrated the war crimes tribunal. Kostunica also has adopted a strategy to out-wait the tribunal and its expected closure in 2008, in the hope that this will mean Serbia no longer need arrest or transfer people under indictment for war crimes.

The European Union made full cooperation with the tribunal a requirement for stabilization talks to start. This brought results. Between December 2004 and April 2005, Serbia arrested and transferred 16 suspects to the Hague. In response, the Union opened talks in May 2005, even though six other suspects — including Mladic and the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic — were still at large.

But once the talks were underway, Serbia halted all cooperation with the tribunal. No further arrests or transfers were made; documents were largely unavailable or inaccessible; witnesses were hard to find.

One year later, in May 2006, the European Union suspended talks over the failure to cooperate with the tribunal. Kostunica bizarrely stated in December 2006 that the conditions imposed by the Union had prevented Serbia from cooperating with the tribunal and arresting Mladic.

As Kosovo's independence draws ever nearer, Brussels is searching for ways to lessen the blow to Serbia's democrats, bending over backwards to make concessions to Belgrade, delaying a decision on Kosovo's status for Serbia's parliamentary elections, granting membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace, and winking at Serbia's fraudulent constitutional referendum. In return for these concessions, the European Union has received nothing, giving up most of its leverage over Serbia and significantly weakening its increasingly tattered credibility.

In spite of the World Court's ruling and Belgrade's failure to arrest Mladic, Karadzic and the remaining four indictees, the European Union now appears ready to appease Serbia by resuming stabilization negotiations. Brussels hopes that the prospect of renewed talks will somehow lessen the blow of Kosovo independence and keep the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party at bay.

Resumption of the talks in the face of Serbia's failure to arrest Mladic and company will tell the Balkans that EU standards mean nothing. It will throw away the Union's last remaining leverage with Serbia and shred its already tattered credibility in the region even further.

Sweeping the dead bodies of Srebrenica under the carpet may be convenient for Europe's politicians, but it will not contribute to peace. This betrayal of the memory of the massacre victims, abandonment of EU standards, and ignoring of the World Court, can serve only to fan the flames of new Balkan tensions. The Union's message to Serbia should be clear: No Mladic, no talks.


Former President & CEO
Former Senior Adviser, Balkans

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