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
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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue