This week, Serbia failed to meet an EU deadline for the extradition of ex-military leader Ratko Mladic to the Hague to face charges of war crimes. The EU has responded by pulling out of talks intended to conclude a stabilisation and association agreement, the first step on the road to EU membership.
As I suggested some time ago, when this course of action was first raised as a possibility, this is a dangerous game. Whilst the EU must show itself to have some teeth in these issues, it risks seriously destabilizing the fragile centre-left coalition in Serbia, who have depended much upon the possibility of EU membership up until now. Nationalist feeling is still, however, strong in the country - the Government depends upon some for its parliamentary majority, and they are strongly against the extradition of Mladic. More importantly, however, the upcoming period, in which it seems like almost a foregone conclusion that at least Kosovo (see our debate here, here and here), and probably Montenegro, will vote for separation from Serbia, means that this could be a very volatile time indeed. The carrot of EU membership has now been withdrawn, leaving the moderates apparently defenceless against the hardline nationalist sticks of Mladic, Kosovo and Montenegro.
The BBC has reported that the fact that talks have been "called off" rather than officially "suspended" is, however, important; the less formal formulation of the former means, apparently, that talks could be resumed immediately upon Mladic's arrest and extradition, whereas the latter would have required a more formal procedure of approval from all 25 member states. This, at least, leaves the door slightly more ajar for Serbian accession, and shows some sensititivity to the political situation in the country.
It remains to be seen, however, whether this will be enough. The tactic could backfire spectacularly, increasing hostitlity towards the Union in Serbia, setting back attempts at reform, and ultimately potentially causing the removal of a sympathetic government and its replacement with a hostile one. The question that must be asked is what price, in terms of Serbia's future stability and development, are we prepared to pay for the arrest and trial of a criminal who is no longer, or at least not currently, in a position to perpetrate more of the crimes of which he stands accused.
It is a common dilemma for societies in this sort of transition to face. Perhaps the most famous recent practical example is that of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa; of course, there are vast differences between the two situations, but it is instructive to note that the Commission, widely regarded as a success, chose to put the emphasis on future stability, offering amnesties for those who came forward and told the truth instead of preferring potentially divisive litigation in a volatile social situation. This cannot, of course, be used as authority to suggest that a similar approach, acting to encourage future Serbian integration into Europe at the price of securing a conviction for a deeply criminal past, should be followed in this case. It does, however, serve to illustrate that the hard legal route, which is what the EU have opted for here, is not the only possible response; as such, it is a gamble.
It would be a mistake to conclude, if this course of action leads in the short-term to Mladic's arrest and extradition, that the gamble has paid off. The EU also has an obligation to assist in the long-term security and stability of Serbia, not merely to the victims of its past; and, while it may be argued that any such prosecution is also vital to the future of Serbia, it is undoubtedly in these terms that the current action must in the final instance be judged. "Get Mladic", although a worthy and important aim, must in the end be viewed as only one part, and perhaps even an expendable part, of the ultimate goal of a stable and prosperous Serbia.
**UPDATE** Reuters is reporting that the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister, Miroljub Labus, has resigned his position over Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's failure to arrest Mladic. If Labus's party decides to withdraw support for the government altogether, it could trigger an election - and the radical nationalists have a clear lead in the polls.