The Serbian government’s May 26 arrest of Ratko Mladic, the military leader of the Serb forces during the Bosnian war, renewed international focus on the Balkans. Around 2005, after nearly a decade of postconflict state building, the world had assumed that it had successfully pacified Bosnia and could wind down its efforts in the country. NATO and the European Union reduced the size of their security presence, even signaling that after Paddy Ashdown’s term as high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina ended in 2006, they would close the Office of High Representative, which the international community created to coordinate and implement the civilian aspects of the peace accord that ended the Bosnian war.

Yet Bosnia’s institutions were not yet ready to stand on their own. When we wrote about the region in “The Death of Dayton” (September/October 2009), the political and economic situation there was in decline. The Dayton Accords had put in place a dual-entity structure, which created two semi-independent states, one for Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, and one for Serbs. The decentralized political system was born out of a necessity to compromise to end the war. But, when coupled with resurgent ethnic nationalism, it blocked Bosnia’s weak central government from addressing any of the country’s major needs, including improving education and health care, regulating businesses, and reforming the pension and social security systems.

Since 2009, the situation in Bosnia and the Balkans has only worsened. In Bosnia, political and economic reforms have languished, as the global financial crisis has further undercut weak and vulnerable economies; international interest has waned even more; and nationalist sentiment has resurged, especially in Republika Srpska (RS, the Serbian entity of Bosnia). Meanwhile, Kosovo’s still-unresolved political status, ethnic divisions, and high unemployment have contributed to domestic frustration and anxiety there.

Yet Mladic’s arrest is one bright spot, demonstrating that international law can help the international community fulfill its promises to the region -- and to the Bosnian war’s victims. Over the past decade, officials in Belgrade and the RS have routinely written off transitional justice, arguing that it was not necessary, and would even be counterproductive, to peace and stability. They routinely suggested that arresting Mladic would outrage Serbs in the region, possibly triggering renewed ethnic violence and destabilizing both Bosnia’s and Serbia’s democratic transitions.

Their fears resonated in the European Union, where officials wanted to avoid any actions that could upset the fragile peace. Although both Washington and Brussels officially demand Serbia’s cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as a precondition for membership in the European Union and NATO, they have often backed off pressuring Serbia to do so. For example, in 2006, NATO allowed Serbia to join its Partnership for Peace, even though both Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were widely believed to still be living in the country.

To be sure, ICTY’s checkered implementation did not help its cause. The 1993 creation of the ICTY did little to stem the ongoing Bosnian war’s violence. The genocide at Srebrenica, for which Mladic was indicted for war crimes, occurred two years after the international court was established. Critics note that, at a cost of more than $2 billion, the ICTY has indicted fewer than 200 people. And surveys conducted throughout the Balkans suggest that most people either are unaware of the ICTY’s trials or continue to see its activities as ethnically charged.

Still, criticisms of the ICTY miss a broader point. The ICTY has persistently retained its focus on individual accountability and helped remove all of the war’s major criminals from power. It is the only institution that has made addressing the past its primary purpose, and its doggedness has paid off. Mladic’s arrest on May 26 was directly prompted by the much-anticipated June 6 2011 report by the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, to the UN Security Council on Serbia’s cooperation with the ICTY. Shortly before Mladic’s arrest, portions of the report were leaked, revealing that Brammertz planned a sharp rebuke of Belgrade for its failure to arrest Mladic and the Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzić.

In this case, international pressure spurred locals to act as it became clear to Serbian officials that they stood to gain politically by making the arrest. Serbian President Boris Tadic noted in a press conference that the capture removes the “stain from the face of Serbia.” Beyond optics, Tadic saw the Brammertz report as a political liability to his upcoming reelection bid. Serbs do not trust the ICTY, but according to a 2006 poll, over half of them believe cooperation with it is either important in and of itself or a necessary evil to get EU membership. With the Brammertz report circulating and whispers that the Netherlands and Ireland were pushing to harden the European Union’s resolve to enforce ICTY preconditions for moving forward on the EU process, for Tadic, doing nothing about Mladic meant hurting Serbia’s chances to accede to the European Union, a more harmful political outcome than any backlash arresting him would cause. Moreover, the arrest signaled to investors that Serbia is moving in the right direction. Days after the arrest, the Belex15, Belgrade’s leading stock index, hit an 18-month high. Many analysts are now predicting an additional ten percent rise in the coming months.

To be sure, Mladic and other nationalists still have their followers, and there is potential for nationalist retaliation. But so far, the reaction to Mladic’s arrest, even in the RS, has been mild. The region’s president, Milorad Dodik -- who just late last month called off a referendum on RS secession that aimed to disrupt Bosnia’s fragile peace -- indicated his support for Mladic’s capture. This may have been political posturing but nonetheless reflects some concern about the perceptions of the international community.

Having seen that international pressure can work to change local leaders’ calculations, the United States, the European Union, and NATO should shore up their earlier achievements in the Balkans with renewed commitment. The interventions of the 1990s ended the violence in a region racked by supposed age-old ethnic hatreds. Although many have called for winding down the international presence now, the world’s security, political, and economic support has been crucial to maintaining peace for 16 years in Bosnia and 12 years in Kosovo.

Yet peace remains very much a work in progress. Nationalist elites continue to use ethnicity as a rallying cry in each of their communities, exacerbating the shift toward nationalist identity politics. Dodik’s periodic threats to secede keep politics in Bosnia deadlocked and the economy stalled. Within some European capitals, there has even been some speculation that the best course might be an “orderly dissolution” of the state, allowing Serbs and Croats to leave. But Bosnia and Kosovo remain ethnically mixed and defy easy dividing lines. Secession or changes in borders -- no matter how small -- will not produce the intended quick solution.

The current regime of conflicting international missions with no resolve only perpetuates stagnation and breeds contempt. The international community should renew focus on its most powerful lever: integration with the European Union. Now that Serbia has met one of the major conditions for moving forward with membership, Brussels must identify the remaining reforms on rule of law, political institutions, the judiciary, and economic regulation that it must complete. Europe should also develop a comprehensive, coherent Balkan policy that would rein in the rising nationalist leaders and empower the moderates by offering a set of explicit and reachable incentives and rewards for moving forward on European integration. At the same time, it should pressure the regime to cut down on corruption, lawlessness, and ethnic chauvinism. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s joint statement on June 7 set the right tone by explicitly stating that Bosnia will remain a single state whose future lies in moving toward greater European integration.

Mladic’s long-awaited capture confirms that setting clear, coherent conditions can produce desired results. Internationals and locals alike need to applaud this event and seize it as an opportunity to revise their strategies and adjust their behavior.

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  • PATRICE C. MCMAHON is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. JON WESTERN is Five College Associate Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges.
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