In war, Ratko Mladic was a feared general despised and feared by his enemies and revered by his own men.

That is how he was preserved in our memory during all those years he was in hiding a swaggering, confident, brutal man.

But the Ratko Mladic whom we eventually got a glimpse of this week was much changed.

Impoverished and in bad health, he is a pathetic, sunken figure.

The circle of powerful friends who had protected him had gradually melted away over the years, leaving him with little logistical support outside his immediate family. That is what made his arrest possible, both in practical and political terms.

The response on the streets of Belgrade from hard-core nationalists was angry (as was the case after the arrest of Radovan Karadzic in 2008) but these are mere spasms of rage from marginal groups whom President Boris Tadic can afford to ignore.  He knows his people are more interested in economic issues, in the right to travel and work freely across Europe, than they are in the sterile nationalist arguments of the 90’s.

This is why President Tadic is now pushing Europe hard for a concrete timetable for entry into the EU. 

Payback time

Serbia’s argument is “we’ve done our bit - now its up to the EU to respond in kind”.

Some European countries had been arguing for years that Serbia had already done enough, and deserved EU membership.

But now we can see that it is the Dutch, (haunted by the legacy of Srebrenica, and their own troops failure to protect civilians there) who have been proved right by blocking Serbia from the prospect of full membership until Mladic was handed over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, (the ICTY), they ensured that objective was met. 

Without casting aspersions on President Tadic’s own sincerity, it’s clear that the degree of Serbian co-operation with the ICTY over the years has often depended on the incentives (and threats) offered by the rest of Europe.

EU membership is not a foregone conclusion for Serbia, even after the extradition of Mladic. Kosovo remains a fly in the ointment.

Many European countries now believe they made a mistake by offering Cyprus membership in 2004, before a settlement of its dispute with the self-declared Turkish Cyprus republic.  This time around, European leaders may be more reluctant to admit another new member with unresolved territorial issues. (And don’t forget that most EU countries have recognized Kosovan independence). 

Still, despite all the problems in the Eurozone, and the hostility in Western Europe towards further enlargement, the countries in the Balkans that are still excluded from the EU are eager to join.

Significance

The ICTY has now succeeded in securing the arrest of all but one of the 160 odd men and women indicted for crimes during the Yugoslavian wars. This is a significant achievement. 

Sadly, this does not mean that the Court has succeeded in reconciling the different peoples of the former Yugoslavia, or in producing a feeling of atonement amongst those responsible for crimes. 

If Mladic’s arrest produced no great waves of anger amongst the Serbs, it seems to have been greeted with little excitement amongst Bosniak Moslems.  The passing of time has not healed, rather it has engrained the cynicism even deeper. “The Serbs hid him for so long, so why should we be grateful now?” is a common sentiment in Sarajevo.

Bosnia’s towns and cities are as divided as ever, and the different communities have a very different perception of the past. In the Serb areas of Bosnia, Mladic and Karadzic are still remembered as heroes, and the court in the Hague is widely perceived to be pursuing an anti-Serb witch-hunt, at the behest of  Western powers.

But all the main communities caught up in the wars of the 90’s - the Serbs, but also the Bosniaks, the Croats, and the Albanians in Kosovo- have reacted angrily when their respective generals and war heroes have been indicted or sentenced by the ICTY.

Still, the forthcoming trial of Ratko Mladic is an enormous opportunity for the Court , and it has a significance that goes way beyond the borders of the former Yugoslavia.

The prosecution will be hoping to expose the workings of the worst crimes in Europe since the Second World War.  In so doing, the ICTY will be sending a message to those who are now involved in other conflicts that they cannot act with impunity, and that one day, they too may have to answer for what they’ve done.