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
Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.