by Steve Milosevic
BELGRADE, May 26 (Xinhua) -- Is the arrest of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic simply yet another milestone on Serbia's tortured path toward European Union (EU) integration? Or does it represent a diplomatic "tipping point," a discernible moment that will redefine Serbia's future direction?
In the high-risk contest of Balkan politics, where external forces most often decide the final outcome, the answer will ultimately come from Brussels.
Mladic's arrest does offer a moment of self-congratulation for patient, persistent EU politicians, who have gradually been extracting ever larger compromises from Serbia, as the country desperately seeks to hop on the European gravy train.
More than any of the other countries to emerge from the implosion of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Serbia bears a stigma of the perpetual "bad boy on the block." Mladic was charged with genocide and crimes against humanity by the ICTY in The Hague, most notably for the summary execution of captured Bosnian Muslim soldiers after the fall of the UN-protected zone of Srebrenica in 1995.
Will these same politicians conclude that Serbia has suffered enough, and that by offering up Mladic a national catharsis has been achieved? Was Mladic's arrest a game-changer?
Former British prime minister Tony Blair, more than any other leaders, pinpointed the motive behind the arrest by saying: " Europe and the prospect of European Union membership can act as a magnet for changing the behavior of countries, changing their political system. So it's big news and good news."
"The doors of Europe are open to you," announced former ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, upon hearing about the arrest. " This is excellent news for the citizens of Serbia."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy described Serbian President Boris Tadic's decision to arrest Mladic as "courageous," and said it was "a step toward integration of Serbia into the European Union someday soon."
These are the expectations, these are the motives. In fact, with less than a year before general elections in Serbia, the future of the pro-EU movement in Serbia rests on whether vague assurances of eventual EU membership will be enough to stem the inevitable nationalistic backlash.
Almost immediately after news of Mladic's arrest leaked out, a Serbian Internet forum asked the question: "Who sold out Ratko Mladic?" In a country where the vast majority in a recent poll said they would rather turn down the 10-million-euro reward for Mladic than turn him in, what political leverage remains for Tadic to make future compromises and reforms without seeming to capitulate?
Tomislav Nikolic, leader the Serbia's main opposition Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) which has a strong nationalistic following, said that Tadic owed the Serbian people an explanation for the arrest of Mladic. Although vilified internationally as a war criminal, Mladic was perceived differently by many of his supporters, according to Nikolic, who carefully weighed his words in the aftermath of the arrest.
Furthermore, with the Serbian constitution explicitly stating its sovereignty over Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, how much room is left to maneuver?
There are also judicial reforms and regional cooperation to address. Just hours after the arrest of Mladic, another Serb leader from the 1990s, Goran Hadzic, a former president of Serb enclaves in Croatia, emerged as the leading war crimes fugitive on the revised ICTY list.