BRUSSELS, Belgium — As European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton boarded a plane Thursday morning for Belgrade, she had already heard rumors that a man had been arrested in Serbia fitting the description of Bosnian war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic. Though unconfirmed at that point, “things looked good,” said one official traveling with Ashton. “And you could feel the excitement in the preparatory talks on the plane.”
One of the messages the foreign policy chief was to deliver to Serb leaders was a reminder of how critical it was for Belgrade to fulfill completely the United Nations mandate ordering complete cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This translates ultimately into the arrest of war crimes fugitives Mladic and Goran Hadzic, a former Croat Serb leader also charged with crimes against humanity and violating the customs of war. The Netherlands, where the tribunal sits in the Hague, has been particularly adamant that the Serbia not move closer to full EU “candidate” status before the indictees are apprehended.
By the time Ashton landed in Belgrade, she needed a new script. Serbian President Boris Tadic had already announced to the world that that one of its most-wanted criminal suspects, a man accused of helping to murder thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, was no longer a fugitive. Mladic had evaded international law for almost 16 years.
In Brussels, euphoria and relief over the arrest was palpable. Official after European Union official rushed before cameras to offer congratulations. The prospect of EU membership for candidate Croatia, even eventually Bosnia, prior to the biggest, most powerful country in the Balkans had not been a welcome one. Now, as Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule put it, “a great obstacle on the Serbian road to the EU has been removed.”
Before her first meeting in Belgrade, Ashton issued a statement calling it a “very important day for international justice and for the rule of law.” She said thoughts should be primarily of the victims of the Bosnian war, particularly those of Srebrenica, but in addition, “I know that people will also be thinking about Serbia and its future in the European Union. What I know is that we will approach that with renewed energy because of today. And I look at the messages coming out of Brussels and European capitals to Serbia and hope that we will be able to move forward swiftly.”
(Read about the reaction among ordinary Serbs to news of the arrest.)
From Deauville, France, where G8 heads of state were gathered, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama chimed in to congratulate the Serbs and add their hopes that the arrest would aid in reconciliation in the Balkans.
ICTY Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz also prioritized the victims, who he said had “endured unimaginable horrors — including the genocide in Srebrenica — and redress for their suffering is long overdue.” Brammertz thanked Serbian authorities for “meeting their obligations.”
The watershed event is going to require some heavy rewriting of Brammertz’ latest report on Serbia’s cooperation, due to be submitted to the United Nations June 7. The six-month summary was reportedly going to deem Belgrade’s efforts to catch Mladic and Hadzic insufficient and unhelpful. That assessment, on which the Netherlands bases its position regarding EU membership for Serbia, would likely have been a deathblow for Belgrade’s hopes to upgrade its status by the end of this year.
However, it’s not yet clear whether the Mladic arrest will suffice in Dutch minds, with Hadzic still at large. For now, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is taking a conservative position on that, saying the arrest alone does not automatically mean Serbia becomes an EU membership candidate.
Indeed, there are many other obstacles ahead of Belgrade. An Ashton aide said that while the tone of the day of meetings was “significantly different” due to the arrest, the entire range of issues was discussed, mainly the pressing need for reforms in the constitution, judicial sector and anti-corruption efforts, as well as neighborly relations.
Tension with between Serbia and Kosovo over the former province’s declaration of independence is a huge hurdle. The EU has been acting as mediator for talks with little to show for its efforts. On Friday, Poland is hosting a summit of central and eastern European leaders plus Obama. Tadic refuses to attend because the new president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, will be there too.
For Mladic, his path is more clear. After his “processing” in Belgrade, he’ll be sent to the Hague to join his old colleague from the Bosnian War, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, with whom he also shares an indictment on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Karadzic’s trial began in late 2009 after his apprehension aboard a Belgrade bus the previous year, while wearing the guise of a long-haired faith healer.
And Karadzic is clearly eager for the company. His attorney issued a statement saying, “President Karadzic is sorry for General Mladic's loss of freedom and he looks forward to working with him to bring out the truth about what happened in Bosnia.”