The arrest of Ratko Mladic came in the nick of time for Serbia’s hopes of closer integration with Europe amid mounting pressure on Belgrade to catch the last remaining war crimes fugitives.
“It was the 11th hour and I’m not surprised by this operation [to arrest Mladic] as the authorities were up against the wall,” Zoran Dragisic, a Belgrade-based security analyst, told B92 TV.
“There was pressure before [from the international community,] but it was clear this time that Mladic represented a big problem for the [pro-European] coalition in power,” he said. “This job had to be done.”
Mladic had been the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia’s (ICTY) most-wanted fugitive, and Belgrade had been warned repeatedly by the EU that its hopes of joining the bloc would hinge on “full cooperation” with the tribunal.
Serbia applied for EU membership in late 2009 and last December cleared a crucial hurdle when the union agreed to examine its candidacy as a reward for softening its stand on Kosovo.
However, the victory was coupled with a warning there would be no further progress failing assistance from Belgrade in arresting and bringing to trial Mladic and Croatian Serb Goran Hadzic, wanted by the ICTY respectively for their roles in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war and the Serbia-Croatia conflict of 1991-1995.
Shortly before Mladic’s arrest on Thursday, media reports said ICTY prosecutor Serge Brammertz was planning to unveil a report at the UN Security Council in early June that would severely criticize Belgrade for its lack of cooperation with the court.
The EU’s enlargement commissioner Stefan Fuele said on Thursday the arrest had lifted a major roadblock on Serbia’s candidacy.
“Justice has been served and a great obstacle on the Serbian road to the EU has been removed,” he said.
“Tomorrow, in this new momentum created, work must intensify on reforms” enabling the EU to formally admit Serbia as a candidate country — a decision expected in the second half of 2011.
The arrest was a dramatic step by Serbia to advance its EU hopes despite a lack of progress in other reforms the bloc is pushing for, such as the fight against corruption and measures to promote competition, Dusan Pavlovic, a political science professor in Belgrade, told B92.
“As this government did not have sufficient energy to meet its obligations in a short time, they turned instead to a faster solution, much more important — arresting Ratko Mladic and quickly opening the door to the EU,” he said.
Serbian President Boris Tadic, who announced the arrest of Mladic on Thursday, rejected any link between the timing and Serbia’s EU hopes, and denied reports that Serbian authorities had long been aware of Mladic’s whereabouts.
“I can say this kind of comment — that we knew where Ratko Mladic was for years — let me use a quite undiplomatic wording, is rubbish,” he told TV network CNN.
British Prime Minister David Cameron telephoned Tadic on Friday, extending congratulations on the Mladic arrest and urging him to move ahead with Serbia’s EU ambitions.
“Mr Cameron encouraged the president to build on this historic moment to pursue Serbia’s European future with renewed vigor,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
However, the head of the opposition Serbian Progressive Party, Tomislav Nikolic, meanwhile said Mladic’s arrest had raised “several questions.”