By Elizabeth Pond
Now we know. NATO's first shots fired in anger were not in vain. A dozen years later, the 1999 intervention to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo suddenly seems not only to have ended the Serbian expulsion of ethnic Albanians in the short run, but even to have helped effect a democratic change in Serbia in the long run. This is especially impressive in contrast with today's quagmire in Afghanistan and ambiguity in Iraq.
As recently as this past spring, the predominant Serb mood still seemed to be a defiant mix of arrogance and perceived victimhood. Yet today, Serbia is finally willing to shed its sense of exceptionalist entitlement in order to integrate with the European Union as a normal European state. The potential for new jobs and economic growth has trumped chauvinism.
Proof came at the end of May, when—after 16 futile years of manhunt in a country the size of South Carolina—Serbian police miraculously ferreted out General Ratko Mladic, who topped the prosecutors' Balkan war-crimes wanted list, at the house of his cousin only 40 miles away from the capital.
The EU had long declared that it would never accept Serbia as a member until Belgrade delivered Mladic for trial at the United Nations tribunal at The Hague on charges of command responsibility for the massacre of 8,000 unarmed Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica in 1995. And when the EU finally canceled ongoing membership talks with Serbia in mid-May over Belgrade's prolonged failure to find the fugitive, Belgrade blinked, located Mladic, and extradited him. The EU's prosaic economic allure triumphed at last over the thrill of inat, a "malevolent, vengeful and obstinate defiance," as Belgrade writer Aleksa Djilas defines this cherished Serb trait.
A decade ago, the arrest of Mladic would surely have mobilized tens of thousands of protesters clad in t-shirts glorifying the Serb commander at Srebrenica. And the arrest might have triggered a new assassination, a repetition of the 2003 murder of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic after he dared to extradite national hero Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. It could also have ignited a new outburst of anger at the perceived bias of a tribunal whose list of 161 indictees were two-thirds Serb and only one-third Croat, Bosniak, and Albanian. Nevermind that this proportion reflected the brutal Serb occupation of one-third of Croatia and two-thirds of Bosnia in the post-Yugoslav wars, as well as the extraordinary Serb effort to "cleanse" the 80 percent majority Albanians from the province of Kosovo.
Even three years ago, the arrest could easily have led to massive protests and the burning of the US embassy, as happened in 2008, after Kosovo seceded from Serbia. And only weeks before Mladic's arrest, 78 percent of Serbs said they would not report the ex-general's whereabouts if they knew them.
Yet this time around, no violence followed the extradition of the one-time idol. Today young Serbs are more preoccupied with unemployment than with asserting the presumed hegemonic rights of Serbs as the largest ethnic group in the Balkans. President Boris Tadic has already won two cliffhanger elections over ultranationalists and finally co-opted their core party leaders into less militant, more mundane politics. He has kept the issue of EU membership separate from the emotive issue of Kosovar independence through his policies of maintaining a hard line on Kosovo. He extradited the last remaining war-crimes fugitive, Goran Hadzic, to The Hague in July without incident.
Moreover, on Tadic’s watch, in early July, the Serbian government grudgingly reached its first agreement with the three-year-old independent Kosovo it still does not recognize. It will now let the latter's citizens travel in contiguous Serbia on Kosovo identity papers and auto licenses.
In response to the Serb turnaround, the EU has resumed its membership negotiations with Belgrade. Serbia should be next in line for accession after its rival Croatian neighbor. Tadic promises that Serbia would be a good member and not act like Greece—in financial mismanagement, presumably. The country is back on course in its transition from anti-Western exceptionalism (whether Orthodox, non-aligned, or Balkan hegemonic) to a humdrum democratic European identity.
To be sure, stumbling blocks remain. Civil Serbia-Kosovo relations may not be a formal condition for EU accession as the extradition of Mladic was. But the lack of border disputes and friendly relations with neighbors are general prerequisites. And the EU experience with the premature welcome of Cyprus into the club in 2004 with outstanding border issues—and that of Bulgaria and Romania in 2005 with their rampant corruption and crime—makes Brussels wary of admitting more members with oustanding issues.
Despite the breakthrough travel agreement, Serb-Kosovar rancor has already brought about another suspension of EU-guided bilateral talks about further practical cooperation. And a few weeks ago Kosovo, impatient at Belgrade's continued ban on its exports to or through Serbia, sent police to take over two defunct customs posts at the Serbian border. A mob from the majority Serbs in the northern segment of Kosovo—most of whom vote for ultranationalists and many of whom nonetheless cooperate with Albanian smugglers—promptly counterattacked, setting one post alight and killing one Kosovar police officer. Once again NATO—this time in the form of residual peacekeepers—intervened. The current NATO commander separated the hostile ethnic brawlers and installed his own troops in the border posts. The governments in both Serbia and Kosovo condemned the violence.
In retrospect, then, the upshot of NATO's 1999 intervention is empowerment. It helped persuade enough Serbs to vote strongman Milosevic out of office in 2000—and gave Serb reformers the space to enforce that election. It also strengthened the European Union's insistence on human-rights conditionality before admitting new members. It generated, at long last, international backing for the UN Balkans tribunal—which would go on to convict 64 of the accused, give voice to thousands of victims, expand the legal interpretation of international law on war and genocide, and build the Balkan capacity to conduct domestic national war-crimes trials.
And perhaps most importantly, it is nudging Serbia to claim a European identity on its way to ultimate EU membership.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.
[Photo courtesy of Flickr user jim.greenhill]