Title:The arrest of Ratko Mladic and its consequences for the process of admission of Serbia to the EU
Date:06 Jul 2011
Author:Andrea Leoni
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On 26 May 2011, Ratko Mladic was arrested by Serbian intelligence in Lazarevo, a town 80 km north east from Belgrade, after 16 years at large. The 68 year old former Commander of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) is allegedly guilty, alongside with Radislav Krstic, the former Commander of the Drina Corps of the VRS and Radovan Karadzic, the former President of Republika Srpska, for the so-called ‘Srebrenica massacre’ of July 1995, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were summarily executed and between 25,000 and 30,000 people were displaced and deported during the campaigns of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Bosnian Serb forces. Right after the arrest of the high profile war criminal the current President of Serbia, Boris Tadic, said that the road for EU membership for Serbia is now open, a huge step towards a full reconciliation in the area.1

Historic overview of the events of Srebrenica

On 16 April 1993 the Security Council passed Resolution 819(1993)2 assigning the status of safe haven to the area of Srebrenica. Srebrenica has always been a point of strategic importance as it maintains territorial integrity between Serbia and Republika Srpska.  The Serbian forces shelled the city for over a year before the approval of Security Council Resolution 819, which, at least in theory, enforced the demilitarisation of the whole area. On 18 April 1993 the first troops of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) reached Srebrenica with a limited peacekeeping mandate. Notwithstanding Resolution 819 both parties involved refused to demilitarise the area and the Serbian troops kept the population of Srebrenica under siege, preventing them from receiving outside aid. Before the outbreak of the war, Srebrenica used to be home to about 9,000 people, with a strong majority of Muslims, but after the fierce campaigns of ethnic cleansing led by the Serbian troops, the population of the city increased to about 37,000 people, living in extremely hard conditions, almost entirely without electricity, water or fuel.3

The situation deteriorated rapidly during the early months of 1995 and on 6 July the VRS troops led by General Ratko Mladic launched their attack on Srebrenica. After five days of military campaign Mladic and Krstic triumphantly entered the empty city. The remnants of the 28th division of the Army of Bosnia Herzegovina and Dutchbat, the 450 Dutch soldiers of the UNPROFOR in charge of the defense of the city, represented no real military threat to the advance of the VRS troops.  The role of the Dutch troops is still a matter of discussion within the international community and the report delivered by the Dutch Institute of War Documentation led to the early resignation of the whole Dutch cabinet in 2002. According to the report the Dutch troops did little or nothing to prevent the VRS forces from overrunning the town. Moreover, they handed thousands of refugees over to the Serbian troops. During these dramatic days, Dutchbat asked the NATO headquarters several times for air support to prevent the Serbs from taking over the safe area, but these requests were ignored. Moreover, neither the Bosnian Muslims in the city nor Dutchbat were well armed and soon they ran out of fuel, leaving little chances of adequately defending the city. On 22 July the campaign of terror was over and the area was almost completely free from the presence of Bosnian Muslims.4

The ICTY and Ratko Mladic’s first indictment

On 16 November 1995 Ratko Mladic was indicted by the ICTY on the basis of individual and superior criminal responsibility for violation of the customs of war, crimes against humanity and genocide, and Serbia was asked to fully cooperate with the enforcement of the arrest warrant.5 Sixteen years have passed since Mladic’s first indictment and the relationship between the ICTY, the Republic of Serbia and the EU has been difficult, but the arrest of Mladic opens new and brighter scenarios for Serbia’s  accession process.

EU role in the aftermath of the war

Since the outbreak in 1991 of the most violent and bloody conflict in Europe since the end of War World II, the EC and later the EU, played a leading role in the process of peacebuilding in one of the most troubled areas in the world, the Western Balkans. Nonetheless it is just in the last decade that the words 'enlargement' and 'potential membership' have been used by the EU in relation to the Western Balkans countries. In particular, in the case of Serbia, the end of the nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic has been the first step on Serbia’s European path.

The EU strategy on the situation in the Western Balkans has been premised on a mix of stabilisation and association efforts. Using its instruments under the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the EU has been trying to establish long and lasting peace.6 The aim of EU was to create a security belt stretched along South-eastern Europe in order to prevent another outbreak of violence which could endanger the stability of the whole continent. So the first goal for the EU was to stabilise the region. The stabilisation process has also been carried out by applying the EU’s most powerful asset, the promise of future membership.

Right after the Dayton Agreement which gave a sort of legal closure to the war, the EU developed a series of instruments in order to deal with the severe issues left by the war in Western Balkans. These included the Regional Approach, a tool which granted financial aid as an incentive to improve regional cooperation and political dialogue with the purpose of creating free market economies. The principle of conditionality, based on the 1993 Copenhagen criteria, full compliance with the Dayton Agreement and cooperation with the ICTY were fundamental pillars of the Regional Approach.7 The stability pact for South-eastern Europe was another program developed by the international community with the aim of establishing a long-term conflict prevention strategy.8 The EU Council of Santa Maria da Feira, on 19-20 June 2000, marked a substantial change in EU strategy, with the European leaders understanding that only a clear and concrete perspective of full membership would trigger economic, social and political reform in Western Balkan countries. The EU clearly stated that accession for these countries “was no longer a matter of if, but of when and how".9 The Stability pact for South-eastern Europe revealed itself as “one of the most enigmatic political inventions for South-eastern Europe” but did not reach the expected results.10  In 1999 the Commission launched the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP), a tool created in order to compensate for the lack of effectiveness of the previous strategies. The SAP mechanism is based on the Copenhagen criteria of respect of democratic principles, respect of human rights and the rule of law, respect for and protection of minorities and development of free market economy reform, and principle of conditionality is the mainframe of this instrument. The EU confirmed that full cooperation with the ICTY, full compliance with the peace agreements, regional cooperation through political dialogue and the conclusion of free trade agreements would be essential for the continuation of the accession process.

The centerpiece of the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Process is the conclusion of Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAA) with each of the countries concerned. The negotiation, conclusion and implementation of the SAA is a gradual process and the requested level of compliance is different in each stage of the process. This reveals the real purpose of these agreements, not just the future ‘Association’, but initially ‘Stabilisation’, which is the most important requirement in a region with different needs than the Central Eastern European Countries (the CEEC) who completed their accession processes in 2004. The procedure begins with the Commission's evaluation of the current situation in the potential candidate country and whether the potential member has made sufficient steps towards reaching the Copenhagen ‘plus’ criteria.11 With the approval of the Council it begins a feasibility study. If the study gains positive results, the official negotiations on the SAA can begin. This long path ends with the approval of the Council, of the European Parliament, the ratification by all member states and of the candidate country.12

The Western Balkans countries that have already successfully concluded the SAA process are Croatia, which was given green light to join the EU on 1 July 2013 following ratification by all EU member states of the accession treaty by the end of this year,13 Macedonia, Albania, and Montenegro. In the preamble of the SAA we can see the willingness of the EU to fully integrate these new countries by granting them the status of potential candidate. This status does not create a legally enforceable obligation on the EU to give full membership to the potential candidates but creates in these countries the right context for the painful reforms that in the future would bring them into the EU as full member states.  As Blockmans writes “the only worthwhile carrot the EU can offer the Western Balkans countries in exchange for concerted efforts to create lasting peace and stability in the region is the prospect of full membership".14

Despite the status of potential candidate country being a powerful lever for reform, applying the principle of conditionality is very difficult and the path towards accession is long and filled with obstacles. In recent years the Western Balkans countries have achieved different levels of compliance with the Copenhagen criteria, with Croatia as the clear frontrunner, while countries such as Albania are moving slower along their path of reform. In this context it is hard to reconcile a regional approach and the use of a distinguished form of bilateral conditionality in order to create healthy competition and to push for further reform. Another problem is the fact that the potential EU membership does not necessarily imply large popular consensus: memories of the 1999 NATO bombing, which was assisted by several EU member states, are still fresh. This image of the EU in potential candidate countries is enforced by its typical one way approach regarding the principle of conditionality. For instance, approximation of the legislation could be an important hurdle for the economic growth, such as when it deals with free market policies. While there are no hard and fast solutions to these issues, it is certain that the principle of conditionality would be accepted more easily if the EU would move away from focusing on the old ethnic and political issues, and instead show real commitment to the issues more pertinent to the Western Balkans countries, such as high unemployment, and corruption.15

The case of Serbia

Notwithstanding the end of the Milosevic’s regime in 2000, Serbia’s European path has been difficult and eventful. The pro-EU integration forces have always had to face a strong nationalist opposition. Public opinion has remained divided between EU enthusiasts and EU skeptics, and opposition forces counted on the harsh feelings of the population due to the EU's position on the Kosovo crisis and the 1999 NATO bombing campaign. Therefore the government was reluctant to deliver indictees to ICTY as this could create tension among the population. According to Serbian government this demonstrated that the ICTY war criminals should have been tried before a domestic court. However, in 2004 the pro-EU forces, led by Boris Tadic, won the election, thereby allowing Serbia to start its own European path. The feasibility study was rebooted by the Commission in October 2004. In order to convince the Commission to approve the feasibility study, Serbia strengthened its commitment to the ICTY by delivering half a dozen indictees during the first months of 2005.16 This improvement in Serbia’s cooperation with the ICTY was due to a combination of pressure from the EU and a slight change in domestic public opinion, which no longer saw the ICTY as an anti-Serbia court. The opinion was partially changed with the indictment of several Croats, Bosnian and Albanian Muslims, which generated the idea that Serbia would no longer be victim of double standards.17 Then, on 3 October 2005 the General Affairs Council finally gave the Commission the mandate to conduct negotiations for the SAA with what was then still the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.18

However, regardless of the remarkable steps forward made by Serbia, the European Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, confirmed that the condition sine qua non for the conclusion of the SAA negotiations was the arrest of the indictees still at large. A series of false reports on the whereabouts of Mladic and Karadzic forced the EU to take a tougher approach against Serbia’s lack of cooperation with the ICTY and on 27 February 2006 the Commission established a one month deadline for the arrest of the suspects, or the SAA negotiations would be interrupted. Serbia could not fulfill the EU’s requests and the Commission called off the negotiation round scheduled for 11 May 2006, bringing Serbia’s accession process to an abrupt end.19 The decision of the Commission was not definitive and the negotiations could have recommenced once Serbia accomplished the Commission's request to fulfill its obligations with the ICTY. After Serbia presented a new action plan, confirming its willingness to handover the suspects to ICTY, there were different reactions within the EU. Some Member States agreed to endorse the SAA even without the concrete arrest of Mladic and Karadzic, but the Netherlands, with the silent support of Belgium and United Kingdom, always represented an insuperable hurdle to this opportunity.20 In the Netherlands, the arrest of the top fugitives was political, due to the ambiguous involvement of the Dutch Peacekeepers in the Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica, which created a sense of national responsibility. The EU persisted in its “carrot and stick” policy and, on 29 April 2008, just two weeks before the elections won by the pro-EU coalition of President Tadic and a few months after the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the EU and Serbia signed the SAA.21

The SAA needs to be ratified not only by the EU member states but also by the Serbian Assembly. Despite the signature of this historic agreement which constituted a huge step forward towards full membership, the pro-EU forces had to fight the still strong nationalist opposition. This demonstrates that the accession to the EU is still not a unifying issue in Serbia, but still remains a matter which creates tension. Despite many member states feeling it was premature,22 on 21 December 2009 President Tadic submitted Serbia’s official application for EU membership, notwithstanding the fact that the SAA ratification process was still frozen by the Dutch veto, due to the failure to deliver Ratko Mladic and because of Serbia’s lack of cooperation with the ICTY.23 The Dutch government was pressured to allow the process of accession go ahead without the delivery of Mladic, but with the guarantee that a more serious effort to capture him was going to be made. Despite this pressure, the Dutch government has always been coherent with its “strict but fair” approach, and as Blockmans writes “Serbia has to show full cooperation with the ICTY before it can move forward in the pre-accession process”.24 The whole political environment radically changed on 26 May 2011 when President Tadic announced the arrest of the last high ranking fugitive, General Ratko Mladic. This event is a huge turning point for Serbian domestic and foreign policy and may cause the accession process to take a new direction.

The arrest of Mladic and its consequences on the accession process of Serbia

Right after the arrest of Mladic, many voices claimed that something had changed for Serbia’s European hopes.  Valentin Inzko, the EU’s Special Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that this arrest marked ‘the beginning of the end of a painful chapter in Bosnia’s history” and that the arrest removed “the last hurdle for Serbia’s candidate status”. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, said that the prospects for Serbia’s accession process were “brighter than ever”. Similar statements were delivered by Stefan Fule, the European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, and by Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, who was in Belgrade on a pre-scheduled visit when the arrest was announced.25 However, this arrest is not just a great achievement for International justice and a symbol of closure and reconciliation in one of the darkest chapters of mankind's recent history, but has strong political implications. Slavenka Drakulic, a Croatian writer, says that she sees “little appetite for real reconciliation and putting aside nationalistic speeches” and adding that “it is like some sort of Orwellian world – you have double speech, one intended for the EU audience and another one, more nationalist, for internal consumption".26 A recent poll conducted by Serbia’s “National Council for Cooperation with The Hague Tribunal” said that just 34 percent of the population would be in favor of Mladic extradition, while 40 percent recognises him as a “national hero”. A remarkable 78 percent would not have provided any help that would have led to his arrest.27  On 29 May, 10,000 people occupied Republic Square in Belgrade in a pro-Mladic rally, accusing the government of treason. The protest turned into a riot which led to 111 arrests.28 This is a clear signal that there is still division in the public consciousness and it is clear that the government has to deal with very strong feelings.

Serbia is still considered as a troubled area and a very delicate balance has been achieved in the last decade. The government must find a compromise between its EU ambitions and the opposing nationalist claims, find a way to cooperate with the ICTY and work out how to deal with the separation of Kosovo, which remains a matter of serious conflict amongst government members .In this regard, the deputy Prime Minister Ivica Dadic recently suggested that Kosovo should be partitioned.29

In such a complicated context it is clear that Mladic’s arrest has major political consequences, radically changing the current scenario. In the last few years Serbia has been accused of protecting the war criminal, and the EU is confident in its belief that Mladic avoided arrest thanks to the assistance of the internal security apparatus, which was still strongly connected to the former General. The freedom of Mladic always undermined Serbia’s official statements confirming its full cooperation and its strong willingness to capture him. It is not surprising that this arrest happened when the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, was in Belgrade on an official visit. President Tadic has had to deal with the international community’s growing concerns regarding his commitment to giving real closure to Serbia’s problematic past, reinforced by its unclear connection with Milorad Dodik, an high profile figure among Bosnian Serb separatists. Of course these issues will not disappear thanks to Mladic’s arrest but they are certainly going to be relegated to the background for a while, giving Tadic a little relief, and allowing him the opportunity to present himself in a different light.

The key to Serbia’s accession process is the ratification of the SAA, always blocked by the Netherlands which bases its decision on Serge Brammertz‘s reports.  On 6 June 2011, Brammertz, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY, delivered his report on Serbia’s cooperation30 that he had previously deemed as insufficient. A critical report would not have provided the Netherlands with grounds to reconsider lifting its veto and this would have destroyed any chance for Serbia to obtain candidate status in 2011. Despite the arrest of Mladic, Brammertz did not completely rewrite his report, but in his speech before the UN Security Council he praised Tadic’s conduct, along with the general approval demonstrated by the whole international community. This may push the Netherlands to lift its veto and to give the green light to the conclusion of the SAA. Even from a domestic point of view, this arrest has happened in highly convenient times for President Tadic, as there are no general elections in Serbia until next year. This arrest also gives Tadic a great chance to take control of the National Assembly. In this situation, the main opposition party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), is faced with two possible dangers. On one hand,  SNS which recently embraced more moderate ideas, could not officially praise Mladic’s arrest without alienating a huge part of the right wing electorate. On the other hand, if the SNS decided to take the nationalist side, this would put the moderate electoral support in danger. This bright scenario is far from certain and Tadic’s government has to face several tasks and their possible downsides. For instance, as Mladic’s arrest might will no longer be fresh in the minds of the nationalist opposition by the time of the elections, the same applies to the moderate electorate, destroying the advantageous momentum caused by the arrest. Nonetheless, Tadic’s government has already used the EU issue as the main asset in its 2008 electoral campaign and not even membership candidate status could guarantee a safe victory. At this stage of the accession process the most concrete benefit that the Serbian population could receive is visa-free travel to the Schengen zone, and considering that Serbia has already achieved this, there is nothing new to be gained from the status of “membership candidate".31

Disenchantment is one of the more common feelings in Serbia on the EU.32 Issues such as the economic crisis and the forthcoming urgent judicial reforms, the legislation on public funding for political parties and the fight against corruption and organised crime constitute additional serious obstacles to Serbia’s European hopes. The watchword should be caution, and if Serbia really wants to make concrete steps forward in the accession process, it should not overestimate the impact of this arrest.



1. www.guardian.co.uk/news/blog/2011/may/26/ratko-mladic-arrest 26/05/2011

2. www.nato.int/ifor/un/u930416a.htm 16/04/1993

3. F. Pilch, “The prosecution of the crime of genocide in the ICTY: the case of Radilsav Krstic”, USAFA Journal of legal studies, 2003,  5.

4. Ibid

5. www.icty.org/x/cases/mladic/cis/en/cis_mladic_en.pdf Case information sheet

6. S. Blockmans, “Tough love: The European Union’s relations with the Western Balkans”, T.M.C Asser Press, 2007, 177.

7. Ibid, 242–244.

8. Ibid, 247.

9. Ibid, 250.

10. Ibid, 253-255.

11. S. Blockmans,  “First principle of enlargement:strict but fair”, Action for Europe, Fondation Open Society Institute: Macedonia, 2010, 32

12. Ibid.

13. www.eu2011.hu/news/eu-summit-accession-treaty-croatia-be-signed-2011 27/06/2011

14. S. Blockmans, “Tough love: The European Union’s relations with the Western Balkans”, T.M.C Asser Press, 2007, 282.

15. Ibid, 300-305.

16. Ibid, 260.

17. G. Mattioli, “Serbia and Montenegro en route to Brussels via The Hague”, European Voice, 21/04/2005

18. S. Blockmans, “Tough love. The European Union’s relations with the Western Balkans”, T.M.C Asser Press, 2007, 260.

19. Ibid, 261.

20. A. Reitman, M. Beunderman, “EU softens stance on Serbia war crimes, EU Observer, 12/02/2007

21. R. Jozwiak, “Serbia 'could' become EU candidate in 2009”, European voice 03/09/2008

22. T. Vogel, “Serbia applies for EU membership”, European Voice, 21/12/2009

23. Ibid.

24. S. Blockmans, “First principle of enlargement: strict but fair”, Action for Europe, Fondation Open Society Institute: Macedonia, 2010, 32.

25. T. Vogel, “EU welcomes Mladic arrest”, European Voice, 26/05/2011

26. V. Pop, “Mladic extradition 'not enough for Balkan reconciliation'”, EU Observer, 01/06/2011

27. A. Reitman, “Dutch take soft approach to Serbia war crimes case”, EU Observer, 19/05/2011 

28. L. Phillips, “Pro-Mladic rally in Serbia ends in violence”, EU Observer, 30/05/2011

29. A. Reitman, “Dutch take soft approach to Serbia war crimes case”, EU Observer, 19/05/2011

30.  www.internationallawbureau.com/blog/?p=2879 15/06/2011

31. T. Loza, “A timely capture with time-limited effects”, European Voice, 01/06/2011

32. Ibid

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