The arrest of General Ratko Mladic came on the morning of a visit to Belgrade by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Whether or not that was pure coincidence, the arrest was an exercise in grossly unsubtle political gameplay.
Whether the Serbian authorities had known of Mladic’s whereabouts for some time or stumbled across him only last week, the timing is highly convenient to President Boris Tadic’s administration.
First, the arrest came just as doubts were growing about Tadic’s ability, or even willingness, to act decisively and constructively to close some of the most sensitive chapters from Serbia’s troubled recent past. Questions have been raised about the president’s ambiguous links with Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb separatist strongman, and about the appetite of Serbian prosecutors for pursuing Bosnian war crimes suspects on the basis of flimsy indictments. Belgrade’s stance over Kosovo offers little chance of a breakthrough, and parts of Serbia’s political class still seem incapable of accepting that Montenegro is an independent state.
Mladic’s arrest does not change the facts in these matters, but it does elevate Tadic to higher moral ground, and that could open up new possibilities.
Prior to the arrest, Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, had described Serbia’s co-operation with the court as insufficient. Brammertz will not rewrite his critical report, but he will soon speak to the UN Security Council in person and praise for Tadic is now likely to dominate his remarks – recognition that will come on top of the numerous plaudits from Western capitals that have showered down on Belgrade in recent days.
Tadic is also unlikely to suffer negative electoral fall-out from reactions to the arrest. The tradition among Balkan leaders has been to time arrests and handovers – whenever it was possible to do so – as long as possible before elections, to avert the wrath of recalcitrant voters. Barring accidents, Tadic will not be required to call parliamentary elections before next year.
Most usefully for Tadic, the arrest put the country’s principal opposition party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), in an uncomfortably tight spot. The party came into being as a splinter group of Vojislav Šešelj’s ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party and has been reprofiling itself as a moderate, centre-right force capable of leading a government that would pursue the EU course. Its leaders could not welcome Mladic’s arrest without risking plausibility in Serbia and irritating many of their potential voters. But for them to join Šešelj’s party in protesting against the arrest would have been equally fatal to their moderate credentials. No wonder then that they instead ducked the subject and just lamely speculated on why the arrest happened when it did.
The timing can easily be perceived as a central element in a script that sees the European Commission recommending Serbia for candidate status later this year, the opposition wrong-footed and in disarray for months to come, and an election in the first half of 2012 in which Tadic’s Democratic Party can exploit the country’s new international status and its leader’s new image as a gutsy politician ready to take difficult steps on behalf of the nation.
But such a plot relies heavily on the electorate’s attention span. By the time Serbia goes to the polls, Mladic’s arrest and the accompanying kudos may be forgotten by many. Tadic and his party have benefited in previous elections from presenting themselves as the country’s most credible pro-EU force, but there is no guarantee that the candidate status will translate into an election triumph. The population of Serbia is no longer naïve about European integration: few delude themselves that membership will follow shortly after achieving candidate status, and fewer still that joining the EU will turn Serbia into a Sweden of the Balkans. In any case, the electorate has already pocketed and takes for granted the most tangible benefit at this stage of EU integration – visa-free travel to the Schengen zone.
Beyond the electoral considerations, the impact of Mladic’s arrest will not of itself secure candidate status. Tadic would be reading too much into the recent praise if he failed in the coming months to advance with judicial reform, legislation on the funding of political parties, public property, restitution and strengthening regulatory agencies or fighting corruption and organised crime.
Above all, Mladic’s arrest does not close a difficult chapter of Serb history, as Tadic seemed to suggest when he announced the arrest. It does no more than satisfy one of the key conditions for Serbia to start to make sense of its recent past. If the political class depicts the arrest as the last hurdle along the road to the EU, instead of simply an event that could let more light into Serbia’s public sphere about distasteful wartime truths, the positive effects on the region of the forthcoming trial in The Hague will be very limited.
Tihomir Loza is deputy director of Transitions Online.
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