Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Serbia in Serious Crisis

Contrary to my own expectations, the government of Serbia has not succeeded in handing over Radko Mladic to the ICTY tribunal in the Hague.

Accordingly, the European Commission is now "calling off" its talks with Serbia and Montenegro over a so called Stabilisation and Association Agreement. Undoubtedly a serious step.

And Serb Prime Minister Kostunica is saying that this risks doing "great damage" to the country. Serious consequences of a serious step.

How did it come to this?

There is no doubt that the government during the last few weeks and months have taken major steps to destroy the support network for Mladic. They were very clearly on his tail, and they made his life substantially more difficult.

Whether they should have been able to arrest him or not is difficult for an outsider to judge.

It can not be excluded that Prime Minister Kostunica relied too much on efforts to pressure him to surrender, and hesitated in ordering an assualt that might well have resulted in him being killed. That might simply have been one bridge too far for Kostunica.

But it might also be that he simply slipped out of the net. It would not have been the first time in human history that a manhunt suffered a setback.

Although it has little to do with the challenges of today, there is little doubt that the European Union is applying harder standards to Serbia than it did to Croatia.

In the Croatia case, the EU did not open membership negotiations as long as Ante Gotovina was not apprehended and brought to the Hague, but there were no problem in negotiating and concluding an SAA treaty with Croatia with Gotovina still at large.

But these things apart it is a fact that Prime Minister Kostunica had undertaken to meet the deadline - and that he did not.

He did not, at the end, give the European Commission any other option. The "call off" was the only possibility for the Commission when the Serb government failed to honour whnat it had promised.

What will happen now remains to be seen. To "call off" is easy - to "call on" will require Mladic in the Hague. Nothing more and nothing less.

Deputy Prime Minister Labus has resigned in protest against the inability of his own government. He has been driving both economic reforms and the European approach of Serbia. It remains to be seen whether the rest of his G17Plus party will follow him into opposition.

We might be facing a government crisis in Belgrade - at the worst possible time.

A government in crisis might be even less capable of taking the steps that might be necessary in order to bring Mladic to the Hague. It might simply be too busy trying just to survive under pressure from the different forces in parliament.

Add to this that there is a critical meeting in the Kosovo status negotiations tomorrow in Vienna. And that we are rapidly approaching the referendum on independence in Montenegro May 21.

It couldn't have come at a worse time.

Serbia is in crisis - and that means that the Balkans is in a potential crisis.