While Serbia is slowly inching towards EU membership, the question of the extradition of Ratko Mladić remains looming over the negotiations. Mladić, Chief of Staff of the Bosnian-Serb armed forces during the Bosnian war from 1992-1995, has been at large since the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) issued his still outstanding arrest warrant in 1995, charging him with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. His extradition to the tribunal the remains a key factor in the accession of Serbia to the EU. The second and last outstanding arrest warrant of the ICTY concerns Goran Hadžić, former president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina and held responsible for the 1991 massacre in Vukovar, in which approximately 250 civilians were slaughtered. Of those two men Mladić remains the most wanted and his arrest has been a top priority for intelligence agencies over the last decade.
Two weeks ago the EU Ministers of Foreign Affairs unblocked the Serbian candidacy bid for EU membership despite the fact that Mladić has still not been arrested. The current application by Serbia can nevertheless still be blocked by any of the 27 EU member states, at any time during the proceedings. Over the coming year the European Commission will assess the Serbian bid, after which initial negotiations for accession might be launched.
Despite the forwarding of the application to the European Commission, the Serbian candidacy bid has run into strong opposition from a number of countries, of which especially the Netherlands. This country has followed a tough line on Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY and claims the extradition of at least Mladić is an absolute condition for Serbian EU membership. "The Dutch will be very tough on wording and they will ask for the maximum for the green light to the Serbian application," said a source close to the Dutch government. The bold position from the Netherlands can be explained by the fact the country hosts the ICTY, but also because it's peacekeeping forces suffered a heavy defeat against Mladić' forces in the fall of Srebrenica, in which approximately 8.000 men were killed.
The Dutch are finding themselves more isolated in their position, as most EU countries are softening their policies regarding Serbian EU candidacy. The risk triggered by this softer approach is that Mladić eventually will never face trial for the atrocities committed under his military reign. Instead of the arrest of Mladić it is now "full cooperation with the ICTY" that seems to be the condition for possible negotiations. Yet in the past the EU only started the assessment of the Croatian candidacy after the indicted Croatian war criminal Ante Gotovina was arrested in Spain and sent to The Hague. Having considered his extradition as an absolute requirement for possible accession of Croatia, there is no reason to demand any less from Serbia.
The problem is that both the EU and Serbia cannot lose face. The EU and a great number of international civil organizations have demanded the extradition of Mladić for over 15 years and would mock themselves by allowing Serbia to enter the Union without this demand being answered. Serbian authorties on the other hand realize that Mladić is still considered as a hero by a part of its people. A recent poll from the International Republican Institute shows that he is still supported by half of the population. Extraditing him now might domestically destabilize the position of the current government, led by president Tadic. Furthermore, Serbia might benefit from stretching negotiations on the issue with the EU as long as possible, for eventually it might get more state support for the long-awaited extradition. It would therefore not be surprising if Serbian authorities already know the whereabouts of Mladić, like the Croatian authorities presumably knew very well where Gotovina was hiding. There are indications Mladić is still protected by nationalist movements in the state apparatus - mainly military intelligence and Serbian president Tadic himself admitted that Serbian authorities protected the indicted war criminal up to 2008.
Despite the history in the region it goes without question that Serbia is a key state in the Balkan and as much a part of Europe as the Netherlands or any other state currently in the Union. It should, must and will therefore eventually join the European Union. The question subsequently raised is whether its leaders will make the faith of one man the faith of a whole country. The most reasonable answer on this is that they should not. So what is the most likely path from now on?
Over the coming year the European Commission will assess the Serbian application. Meanwhile the Serbian authorities will conduct a number of widely publicized, yet unsuccessful hunts for Mladić to saturate the international media and opinion. After the European Commission finishes the assessment of the application, negotiations between the EU and Serbia could be initiated. With Mladić still on the run and Serbia expected to show its cooperation with the ICTY and commitment to the application for EU membership, "small fish' Hadžić will be arrested and extradited. This will allow further negotiations amongst other concerning Kosovo - between the parties and demonstrate Serbia is willing to meet its responsibilities. By now also the Netherlands will take a more positive approach towards Serbian accession although it will remain pushing for the swift extradition of Mladić. As the negotiations between the EU and Serbia reach their final stages, the extradition of Mladić will most likely be arranged behind the scenes. When the accession of Serbia is approved through unofficial diplomatic channels, Mladić will be arrested and extradited to the ICTY. His arrest will take place outside of Serbian territory so Serbian authorities have clean hands towards pro-Mladić movements and domestic politics are not destabilized or polarized. The arrest of Mladić then fully clears the road for Serbian accession, which subsequently takes place in a few years.