Cyanide in the Courtroom: International Opinion on Serbia’s Role in the Balkan Conflicts
Last November, twenty two years after he ordered mass killings of Muslim Bosnians, The Hague sentenced Ratko Mladic, aka the Butcher of Bosnia, to life in prison. A week later, Slobodan Praljak took a deadly dose of cyanide immediately after hearing that the same court upheld his verdict of guilt on war crimes charges. Many in Europe and the United States still blame Serbia for the decade-long series of conflicts that Mladic and Praljak ruthlessly prolonged. Serbia’s relationship with the Western world will continue to be hurt by the perception of it as the instigator of the Balkan Conflicts, particularly in its application to the European Union (EU).
The Balkan Conflicts erupted after the Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito died and various regions within Yugoslavia tried to break away from the political union. Belgrade was at that time the capital of Yugoslavia and Milosevic sent Yugoslav troops made up of mostly ethnic Serbs to crack down violently on the breakaway regions. The situation devolved throughout the 1990s into an ethnically-charged series of attacks. The conflicts continued for almost a decade until US-led NATO bombings targeted Serbian-held positions (VOA has a great timeline of the conflicts here).
Depending on who you ask, the NATO bombings were either a humanitarian move to end the genocide that Serbians were committing, or a heavy-handed response to only one side of a conflict with multiple combatants. A banner that still runs the entire length of the fence in front of the parliament in Belgrade blames the then-US President Bill Clinton as well as Hillary Clinton for the deaths of those killed in the NATO airstrikes and features pictures of people killed in the airstrikes.
NATO nations largely blame Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic and his ethnic Serb troops for being the primary aggressor in the Balkan Conflicts. As a result, modern-day Serbia has a complicated relationship with many of the world powers. In 2004 and 2013, respectively, former Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia became members of the European Union while Serbia has experienced a harder road to EU membership. The EU had to issue an ultimatum to even secure Mladic’s turnover to The Hague in 2006. There have been a number of other serious roadblocks in the EU discussions. Kosovo is a big one. To this day, there is only a dotted line on maps between Serbia and this breakaway region. The EU has also said that Serbia must improve relations with Kosovo before joining the EU.
Recently, Serbia has made progress on the Kosovo reconciliation front as well as other factors important to the EU. To date, Serbia has enacted a significant economic reform program, has put in place an agreement on normalization of its relations with Kosovo, and has elected its first female prime minister. Despite these steps, critics claim that the prime minister is a puppet of the president, Aleksander Vucic. Vucic himself is a controversial figure as he was previously the press secretary under Milosevic.
The criticism that he has ties to an accused war criminal is not the only one dogging Vucic. Critics say he stifled the media, intimidated voters, and employed bribes in order to secure a win in the 2017 presidential election. Students led protests that went on for days following the results. Furthermore, he is pursuing close relations with Russia to the extent that in October, Russia gifted Serbia fighter jets and promised to provide other military equipment at no charge.
Vucic’s answer to critics of his close relationship with Russia is that he is staying “neutral” in the east-west divide between Russia and Europe. The argument for Serbia maintaining relations with Russia is usually historical – that they share cultural and linguistic similarities. This might not be enough to assuage Western would-be allies. While the US president may be more sympathetic to Russian interests than any other modern president, the US congress and other western European powers will likely be suspicious of too much integration with a country that aligns itself with an increasingly aggressive Russia. The EU might well require a level of loyalty from Serbia that it will be unwilling to give.
For Serbia, this all means that integration with Europe will continue, but slowly. Serbia has made progress on the high-profile requests by the EU, such as improving relations with Kosovo, but the country is still a long way off from real integration. With 30 areas of negotiation still left to come to agreement on before Serbia can be accepted to the EU, likely another decade or more will pass before both sides complete the process. Additionally, many of the EU nations, who are also NATO members, have not forgotten their stance that Serbia was the party at fault during the Balkan Conflicts or that Serbia continues to be cozy with an imperial Russia. If Vucic continues to repress the media and to stay friendly towards his Slavic friend to the East – which he is likely to do – every step of the EU negotiations will be a vertical climb.