Will Serbia use Mladic detention to end Kosovo impasse and join EU?

The capture of Ratko Mladic is not just an opportunity for justice, but also a chance for diplomacy.

Can the Balkans finally turn the page? Ratko Mladic, the Serb general who was Milosevic's military spear-carrier in the long wars of anti-Muslim extermination and ethnic cleansing in the western Balkans in the 1990s, has finally been caught. Can Belgrade use this achievement to face down its nationalist past and finally bring closure on the Kosovo question, which is blocking a future for Serbia in the EU?

Like some wretched SS general hiding away after 1945, Mladic had a network of supporters and admirers who protected him from justice. He continued to receive his army pension – paid to his family – until a few years ago. Too many Serbs have been in denial about his role, too ready to forgive him as they woke up ten years ago to discover that Milosevic, Mladic and Karadzic had finally buried the major European federal state that Tito created after 1945.

Serbia's moderninising, pro-European president, Boris Tadic, a committed social democrat, always insisted both as defence minister and then as president that he wanted to bring Mladic to trial. Now he has delivered. As Balkans minister from 2001-2005 and then as UK delegate to the Council of Europe, I insisted that Serbia had to deliver – not protect – Mladic, if the door to Europe was to open fully. Now Tadic deserves Europe's thanks.

But will he snatch diplomatic defeat from the jaws of the Mladic arrest victory? In one of those spectacular coincidences that Balkan history adores, Tadic was due to meet President Obama tomorrow in Warsaw. But, in a misguided diplomatic blunder, Tadic declared earlier this week that he would snub the US president by refusing to go to Poland to greet him.

The reason for this was that Kosovo was invited to take part in the meeting along with the other ex-Yugoslav states. Yet Tadic could still turn up in Warsaw as Europe's hero of the hour, having finally hunted down the western world's most wanted war criminal to send him to The Hague for trial.

Instead the official Serb line – at least until the news of Mladic's arrest – was that Belgrade was so offended by the presence of Kosovo's president in Warsaw that Tadic would not fly to Warsaw to shake Obama's hand.

Coup in Poland

Washington is still strongly committed to supporting the new post-communist democracies of eastern Europe and the Balkans. While George W Bush took his eye off the Balkans to focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, Barack Obama will not forget that it was the US that helped defeat the Milosevic murder machine, first in Bosnia and then in Kosovo.

Obama's key foreign policy advisers, as well as Vice-President Joe Biden and the secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, are children of the 1990s who watched in frustration as neither the UN nor the EU was able to stop neither the genocidal slaughter in Srebrenica nor the mass killings of Kosovar Muslims by Serb paramilitaries under "generals" such as Ratko Mladic.

Getting Obama to Warsaw is a remarkable coup for Radek Siksorski, Poland's single-minded, outspoken but strategic foreign minister. Oxford-educated Sikorksi has moved on from a 1980s neoconservatism to his position today as Europe's most innovative and creative foreign minister. He has helped reduce the age-old Poland enmity of its two neighbours, Russia and Germany, to manageable, even friendly, relationships.

He has more contacts in Washington than any other European politician and has parlayed these into Obama's major visit. To place Poland as the pivot of Euroatlantic politics in the new Europe, Sikorski invited all European nations to come and talk with Obama.

These now include the new nation state of Kosovo, which is recognised by 75 other countries and is accepted as a partner by international financial institutions. But Kosovo faces a determined campaign by Serbia to deny the young nation's identity. Russia, which never loses an opportunity to meddle, backs Belgrade's anti-Kosovo line. Serb anti-Kosovar diplomacy is the continuation of Milosevic's war by other means.

Demonic obsessions

Serbia has allies in a few EU member states, notably the two Orthodox countries of Greece and Cyprus. Spain has also broken ranks with EU solidarity, citing the flimsy excuse that recognising Kosovo would encourage Catalan and Basque separatism – as if recognising other ex-Yugoslav entities would not.

Slovakia and Romania are rightly angry at the nationalist populism of Hungary's new conservative government, which issues passports to Hungarian minorities in its two neighbours, with the clear implication that the Hungarian-origin citizens of Slovakia and Romania owe first loyalty to Budapest.

Only Romania has decided to make its non-recognition of Kosovo a reason to reject Sikorski's invitation to Warsaw to sup with Obama. Both the US and Sikorski say firmly that the Kosovar president, Atifete Jahiga, will attend the Warsaw summit.

Sikorski was very clear. "Kosovo is recognised by some 75 countries, including the majority of the European Union. Poland recognises Kosovo so there was no reason not to invite Kosovo's representative," he told the Financial Times. He also had a blunt message for President Tadic. "Serbia has to show that it has overcome the demons from its past if it wants to join the European Union."

In fact, the EU's foreign affairs chief, Cathy Ashton, has been quietly but effectively trying to bring Belgrade and Pristina together. Her chief aide, the able British diplomatist Robert Cooper, has been involved in quasi-shuttle diplomacy between Brussels, Belgrade and Pristina.

Smart Serbs know that the notion that Kosovo is just a breakaway province which will accept rule from Belgrade is a fiction. Sadly, some EU member states such as Spain, Greece, Slovakia and Romania help Belgrade – and, behind Belgrade, Moscow – maintain this fiction.

Obama and Sikorski have called this bluff by insisting that Kosovo has much right as any EU nation to sit next to representatives of other Balkan states at international conferences. Serbia is locked in denial on this issue.

The question now is whether the arrest of Mladic allows Tadic to come triumphantly to Warsaw, or whether Serbian nationalist irredentism insists he stay in Belgrade rather than sit at the same table as his fellow-president from Kosovo. The sooner all of the EU, and the rest of the world, let Kosovo be Kosovo, the quicker Serbia can start its push for EU membership.

Mladic's arrest should be the moment when Serbia cuts its Kosovar Gordian knot and moves forward to Europe, rather than remembering the past when Serb bullies such as Mladic assumed that they could rule other peoples and nations demanding freedom.

Denis MacShane is a British MP and a former minister for Europe

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.