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The mastermind of the worst crimes of Bosnia's civil war has been caught. But bringing Mladic to justice will not be a regional panacea, and neither does it assure that Serbia's European dream will now be realised.
By Adrian Johnson, Director of Publications, RUSI
That fugitive general Ratko Mladic was hiding in Serbia was probably the former Yugoslavia's worst-kept secret. What is more significant is that now, after sixteen years on the run, the government of Serbia was prepared to arrest him and pass him on to the international tribunal in The Hague. The Serbian president, Boris Tadic, has a fine tightrope to walk between the demands of EU candidacy and his own domestic politics, where unrepentant nationalists remain a powerful force. Finally handing over General Mladic signals a new seriousness in Serbia's pursuit of an EU future.
The arrest has been predictably greeted with delight by Mladic's victims, particularly the residents of Sarajevo who endured one of the cruellest sieges in modern history, and the relatives of the thousands of Muslim men and boys slaughtered at Srebrenica. Of course, in the former Yugoslavia, everyone plays the victim, and some Serbs have reacted angrily to the arrest, including the nationalist Radical Party in parliament; more moderate nationalists have been more equivocal. Still, most Serbian MPs have applauded the arrest, hailing it as another step in closing a dark chapter in their country's past.
Yet for all the euphoria, the arrest of Mladic does not resolve the region's most pressing issues. Bringing him to justice will be of tremendous symbolic value, but it will do little to remedy the permanent political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Bosnian Serbs have made the noises of secession with alarming frequency in recent years, and there is growing discontent within the Bosnian Croat community with their lot in the Muslim-Croat Federation. Neither will the inevitable long, protracted trial in The Hague do anything for the region's deeper-rooted problems of cross-border crime, corruption and weak judicial systems. Indeed, catching Mladic may prove to be the easy part: starting to meet the EU's extensive membership criteria in an era of enlargement fatigue may yet be another Herculean endeavour for Serbia.
When the now-convicted Croatian general Ante Gotovina was apprehended on the Canary Islands back in 2005, Croatia's EU membership negotiations were again allowed to progress. But since then, a series of obstacles - from economic reform to petty border disputes to war crimes - have frustrated its efforts to join the world's most exclusive club. Croatia's predicted entry date has slipped back so many times that almost no one would bet on the current date of July 2013.
As it was for Croatia, so it will be double for Serbia. There were three 'red-line' war crimes suspects whose capture was sine qua non for EU candidate status. The first two, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, have been caught. But a third, Goran Hadzic, wanted for crimes in eastern Croatia in 1991, remains at large. This may yet block Serbian EU candidacy, regardless of calls from some quarters for Belgrade to be 'rewarded' for handing over one of its own.
But the biggest question remains over Kosovo. It is one thing to catch a single man, and quite another bring final closure to the question that raged throughout Yugoslavia's existence without resolution. Here, even the EU is beset by internal division: several member states do not recognise the young state, which will complicate attempts to pressure Serbia to accept an independent Kosovo. But neither will a political fudge be easy, such as some kind of 'indefinite deferment' of Serbian claims. And here is the essential difference between Mladic and Kosovo: even Serbs eager to move towards a liberal, European future find the idea of selling their cultural heartland for thirty pieces of silver - EU membership - quite repugnant.
So Serbia now takes one step forward to a European future, though nothing is assured these days. But elsewhere, sadly, history may prove Mladic to have ultimately been a success in his grotesque objective: his aim of an 'ethnically cleansed' Bosnian Serb statelet has, it seems, been achieved. His trial and sentencing may therefore be only a fleeting palliative for his biggest victim: a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia.
The views expressed here are the author's own and do not nessecarily reflect those of RUSI.