The EU and Serbia: treating a state like a naughty child

What gives European officials the right to punish Serbia for failing to arrest former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic?

Tara McCormack

Topics Politics

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Last week the European Union-imposed deadline for Serbia to arrest former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY), ran out. In the past month, it was made clear to Serbia that failure to arrest Mladic and hand him over to the ICTY would result in the suspension of the accession talks between Serbia and the EU that had begun last year. The Serbian government failed to deliver Mladic, and the talks were duly suspended.

According to Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the ICTY, Serbia has let the ICTY down (1). She said, ‘I have been misled’, suggesting that the Serbian government had not been entirely honest in March when it said that Mladic’s arrest was imminent. EU Enlargement Commissioner, Olli Rehn, also expressed his disappointment with Serbia. The US State Department stressed that without proper cooperation with the tribunal, full Euro-Atlantic integration of Serbia will not be possible (2).

Miroljub Labus, Serbia’s deputy prime minister, resigned in anger. Blaming Serbia’s security services for failing to catch Mladic, Labus declared: ‘They did not do their job properly…. They searched for Mladic everywhere except where he was hiding.’ He accused Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica of betraying the Serbian people (3).

For the fragile and weak coalition that currently governs Serbia, the suspension of the accession talks could provoke political difficulties, signaled by Labus’s resignation. Labus is the leader of the G17 party; if that party withdrew its other deputies from the coalition, that would leave the government with an unworkable minority. The real weakness of the Serbian government, however, is revealed in its complete orientation towards the EU. For Serbian elites it is the international community that must not be let down, rather than the electorate.

Vojislav Kostunica pleaded that Serbia had done all it could, arguing that any network of helpers that Mladic had been relying upon had now been dispelled and arrested (4). Certainly the state security forces, long suggested to be protecting Mladic, had in recent months made arrests of known supporters and exposed former safe houses (5). Such actions by the Serbian government also suggest that the frequently made argument about the arrest of Mladic provoking a nationalist backlash in Serbia is not an accurate reading of the Serbian people’s mood (6).

In fact, far from being a recalcitrant, nationalistic state, in recent years Serbia has done everything it can to prove itself worthy to the international community. However, despite the 2001 handover of Milosevic to the ICTY (which was against the Serbian constitution), the signing of an EU-imposed agreement to abolish the Yugoslav state, extensive EU-funded government reforms, and the beginning of preparation to implement the EU’s acquis communautaire, the international community has declared that the non-arrest of Mladic is a fundamental barrier lying between Serbia and the beginning of the accession process to the EU (6). Serbia is no doubt accustomed by now to the regular dramatic threats by the EU and other members of the international community (7).

Olli Rehn stressed that negotiations would resume as soon as Mladic was captured, and it is currently rumored that his arrest is imminent (8). Whether that happens, or whether the EU finds something else to rake Serbia over the coals for, what this recent drama reveals once again is the profoundly anti-democratic nature of the EU’s treatment of potential candidate countries. As Vuk Draskovic, Serbia’s foreign minister, ruefully remarked last week, ‘It is as though The Hague were our capital’ (9).

In the Alice in Wonderland world of the international community, an entire state can be held to have ‘disappointed’ an international institution. For the EU, and institutions like the ICTY, it is as though the state exists for them, rather than the other way round. Yet these external diktats seem to be accepted by media commentators and analysts who normally are so quick to point out the anti-democratic nature of governments in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.

For the weak elites in Serbia, whose claims to legitimacy seem to rest on their ability to steer Serbia into the EU, the inability to capture Mladic has become the outstanding issue, above all domestic political matters. For the EU and the ICTY, the use of the issue of war crimes is an easy way to strike a moral pose and claim legitimacy. Either way, it is the Serbian electorate who loses out, as their future is made reliant upon the arbitrary will of the international community.

(1) EU halts Serbia talks over Mladic, BBC News, 3 May 2006

(2) US supports EU’s suspension of talks with Serbia, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 3 May 2006

(3) EU halts Serbia entry talks over Mladic, Guardian, 3 May 2006

(4) EU halts Serbia entry talks over Mladic, Guardian, 3 May 2006

(5) EU ends talks as Belgrade fails to produce Mladic, Nicholas Wood, International Herald Tribune, 4 May 2006

(6) Rhetoric and reality over Serbia, by David Chandler in Serbia: from pariah to EU member

(7) Get Mladic, or else!, by Tara McCormack in Serbia: from pariah to EU member

(8) EU holds Serbia talks over Mladic, BBC News, 3 May 2006

(9) UN prosecutor mum on expiration of Mladic ultimatum, BakuTODAY, 1 May 2006

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Topics Politics


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