Serbia: Mladic Arrest Key to NATO Membership

Belgrade's plans to join NATO's Partnership for Peace programme threatened by reluctance to surrender Mladic to The Hague.

Serbia: Mladic Arrest Key to NATO Membership

Belgrade's plans to join NATO's Partnership for Peace programme threatened by reluctance to surrender Mladic to The Hague.

Belgrade will not realise its dream of entering the NATO fold in 2003 because of the domestic political risk of surrendering Hague tribunal indictees, most notably the former Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic.

Western diplomats and Belgrade analysts believe Mladic is living in Yugoslavia under the protection of the military's secret service.

Observers say no political force in the land can countenance the risk of handing over a man many still regard as a national hero.

Speaking on New Year's Eve, interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic claimed the Serbian authorities had no hard evidence of Mladic's whereabouts. Were he known to be in Serbia, Mihajlovic said, the police would certainly arrest him.

Mihajlovic's remarks follow repeated international calls for the former Bosnian Serb general's arrest.

At November's NATO summit in Prague, secretary general George Robertson emphasised that Serbia could not work with NATO until it had fulfilled its obligations to The Hague.

In the same month, tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte visited Belgrade to pressure the authorities into handing Mladic over.

Most Serb officials agree that joining NATO's Partnership for Peace programme is a vital first step towards their long-term foreign policy aim of full NATO membership and entrance into the EU. Their dilemma is that the extradition of Mladic - the key to them achieving their goal - could test the government as seriously as the furore over Milosevic's deportation in 2000.

Speaking last month, foreign affairs minister Goran Svilanovic offered the starkest assessment yet of the choice now facing Belgrade. "None of our goals can be realised if we do not cooperate with the tribunal for crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and do this by arresting the accused and making them face the court," he said.

Defence officials in Belgrade have been working hard with the army leadership on paving the way for the country's inclusion in the Partnership for Peace programme. The past few months have seen a flurry of encouraging activity, with delegations from abroad meeting defence officials on a near-weekly basis.

The UK represents NATO in Yugoslavia and British military delegations are frequent visitors to Belgrade. UK Land Forces commander general Michael Jackson recently opened a language school at the Yugoslav military academy, where officers will be taught English, a pre-requisite for NATO integration.

Members of the country's elite army units have also been taking part in international military manoeuvres and competitions held by NATO and Partnership for Peace countries. At the 14th International Patroille, held in November in Austria, Yugoslav special forces participated for the first time alongside their US and other western counterparts.

Politically too, efforts to enter the alliance programme have been gathering pace. A delegation of deputies from the Yugoslav federal assembly was invited to participate in the 48th session of the NATO parliament in Istanbul in December.

The Serb delegation, comprising Miroslav Filipovic, Borivoje Mijatovic and Boris Tadic, was the first ever to participate in the alliance assembly, albeit as observers.

According to Filipovic, it was agreed at the meeting that Belgrade would host a NATO seminar on regional stability in 2003. He also indicated that the alliance's parliamentary economic committee might meet in Belgrade next year.

NATO's efforts to encourage Belgrade's involvement in the organisation's activities are seen by many observers as a means of communicating to Yugoslavia that the door to alliance membership remains open, despite it being turned down for inclusion in the Partnership for Peace programme at the Prague summit in November.

After months of informal but intimate dealings with NATO member countries, many in Serbia had expected that an invitation to the alliance's military project would materialise at the summit.

Robertson instead used the Prague conference to remind Yugoslavia, Croatia and Bosnia that they cannot expect to join NATO until they have fulfilled their obligations to the tribunal. Speaking of Belgrade's prospects, alliance spokesman Avian Quintier was diplomatic, "Although there has been some good cooperation, things still need to improve vastly."

Just what improvements are required were spelt out during Del Ponte's visit in November. As NATO spurned Serb advances in Prague, the tribunal chief prosecutor arrived in Belgrade to make public her dissatisfaction with the country's unwillingness to assist The Hague.

Yugoslavia's difficulty in cooperating with the tribunal is illustrated by the divisions between Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic and federal president Vojislav Kostunica. The leading rivals on the Belgrade political scene are at loggerheads over the issue of handing suspects over to the war crimes court.

A western-minded reformist who had Milosevic extradited to The Hague two years ago, Djindjic commands the Serbian police force, which is officially responsible for arresting war crimes suspects. However, his approval ratings in Serbia are low and any moves towards arresting Mladic would further weaken his standing. It is therefore unlikely Djindjic will take swift action against the former Bosnian Serb commander.

Kostunica, on the other hand, is openly critical of the tribunal and enjoys a high popularity rating. As president and commander of the Yugoslav Army, VJ, he is not responsible for arresting suspects and deporting them for trial. However, the army security service - the only such service to have escaped reform after the fall of Milosevic - is widely suspected of sheltering Mladic.

Matthew Holiday is a freelance journalist based in Belgrade and Daniel Sunter is IWPR coordinating editor in Serbia.

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