The arrest and extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague of former general Ratko Mladic is one of those events at which everyone can rejoice — and, at one level, rightly so. As the Bosnian Serb commander responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo (during which some 10,000 civilians died) and, most notoriously, for the brutal murder of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, Mladic deserves no pity. But all is not as it seems.
The first clue is the timing. When Mladic was suddenly “discovered,” EU foreign-policy chief Baroness Ashton was actually on her way to Belgrade to warn Serbian president Boris Tadic that continued failure to hand over Mladic would end Serbia’s hopes of becoming an EU candidate member. Mladic had been living more or less openly in Vojvodina, by no means an out-of-the-way area, and the Serbian army and intelligence chiefs obviously knew where he was. It is hardly credible that the self-professedly liberal Serbian president did not know, too.
Mladic was held in reserve as part of a bargain. Its terms were well understood in Belgrade, Brussels, and the Hague, if not in Washington. There were two elements to it.
The first was that Serbia should be paid blood money, in the form of long prison sentences for the Croatian generals responsible for the defeat of Serbia’s expansionist strategy in 1995. Two of the three Croatian generals on trial before the ICTY were handed sentences of 24 and 18 years after the court ruled that the (real) abuses that occurred on their watch, including killings and arson, were all part of a high-level criminal plan. The evidence was flimsy — no U.K. or U.S. court would have taken it seriously. The outcome created outrage in Croatia, but it satisfied the Serbian public and authorities, who were now expected by the EU to deliver Mladic.
But Serbia wanted more. It wants to see the Republika Srpska (RS), the ethnically cleansed Serbian section of Bosnia, given de facto and ultimately de jure independence. Baroness Ashton, defying U.S. and NATO wishes, went on May 13 to the RS “capital,” Banja Luka, and bestowed useful legitimacy on the Serb para-state. It was a start. The deal in the diplomatic wings is that when Serbia finally recognizes the independence of Kosovo, it will be rewarded with the break-up of Bosnia to the benefit of the Bosnian Serbs — the goal for which Ratko Mladic committed genocide.
Serbia also wants to be granted at least candidate EU membership at the same time as Croatia is (grudgingly and conditionally) promised full membership this summer. Only when the EU warned that without handing over Mladic the train to be Brussels would be missed, did he materialize.
Such cynical manipulation is, of course, what European diplomacy is traditionally about. But who is using whom? In truth, at each stage of these upheavals, the European countries have proved accomplices and dupes. Britain, in particular, liked Mladic and always believed the best of him. The Europeans are still useful fools. Serbia may have given up a broken pawn, but the game of winning the struggle for Bosnia continues. With EU membership for Serbia now also an early prospect, all is going to plan.
America, though, should be alarmed. The U.S. has plenty to worry about without being forced to intervene once more in the Balkans. Yet if Washington leaves Brussels and Belgrade to write the script, that is where this grisly production will likely end.
— Robin Harris is senior visiting fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation.