Why Serbia Captured Mladic and Pakistan Harbored Bin Laden

What lessons does the European Union success in guiding Serbia hold for the failed U.S. efforts to transform Pakistan's nationalist political culture?


A protester in Belgrade holds a wanted poster for indicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic/Reuters

Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic's 15 years "on the run" from European investigators, who sought his capture for the murder of 8,000 civilians at Srebrenica in 1995, don't inspire a great deal of confidence in the Serbian government's efforts to find him. Soccer matches, weddings, and a few years spent living in towering high-rise apartments in downtown Belgrade all underscored the conclusion that Mladic "received vital, little known, assistance from Serbian military forces and several of the country's past governments," as the New York Times concluded last year. For a decade and a half, the Serbian government -- which was at times sanctioned by the outside world, and at times engaged, in the international effort to find Mladic -- claimed it had no idea where the former general, a hero of nationalist Serbia in the 1990s, could possibly be hiding. Today, the Serbian government announced it has finally captured the one-time leader of that country's genocidal armies.

Mladic's case is in many ways similar to that of another internationally wanted war criminal who spent years hiding peacefully under the noses, and possibly the stewardship, of a sympathetic government: Osama bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader's own years "on the run" turned out, like Mladic's, to not involve very much running. He lived safely, if awkwardly, in a sprawling Pakistani compound amid the mansions of retired military officers and a mere jog from the country's version of West Point. But there's one important difference. Pakistan's government, despite years of U.S. cajoling and begging, despite an endless stream of carrots and sticks, never managed to pluck bin Laden out of the compound and hand him over.

Serbia and Pakistan are two very different countries, Ratko Mladic and Osama bin Laden two very different people, and countless factors that might have contributed to Serbia giving up its once-favored son while it was ultimately up to the U.S. to unilaterally enter Pakistan to take bin Laden. But with so much on the line in the troubled U.S.-Pakistan relationship -- the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where Pakistan continues to block peace; and the Kashmir conflict that still threatens the global nightmare of India-Pakistan war, for example -- it's crucial to understand why Serbia may have come around where Pakistan did not.

Ascension into the European Union, which would reap huge benefits for the Serbian economy still struggling to recover from years of international sanctions, has long been tied directly to Mladic's capture. Serbia's large and cheap workforce of unskilled labor has languished without full access to the larger EU economy, pushing unemployment as high as 20 percent. For years, the EU leadership has consistently made Mladic one of only three requirements. The second condition, structural economic reforms, is part of every EU ascension. But the third, reopening diplomatic engagement with former enemy Kosovo, is subtly linked to Mladic's case. Kosovo's 1998 secession from Serbia was part of the same Yugoslav breakup that Mladic fought against, and Serbia's violent reaction was of a piece with the same pan-Yugoslav, Serbia-dominated nationalism that underlay Mladic's brutal campaigns. Recognizing Kosovo, as with arresting Mladic, would be a move away from the 1990s ethnic hatreds that drove both conflicts, and a final Serbian resignation that the era of Serb-led Yugoslavia is over forever.

Linking EU ascension to Mladic's capture did more than just offer an economic incentive for a political concession. It provided an image of Serbia as it could be, to contrast with Serbia as it currently exists. Just one Balkan nation among many, rather than the seat of Yugoslav power, and a state lacking the ethnic nationalism that fueled its might for so long. But a richer Serbia, more prosperous, more employed, and integrated into the EU collective that also includes its former enemies in Europe's West. That choice has clearly not been an easy one for Serbia, which struggled internally and externally for years against pressure to finally acknowledge that the old Serbia is gone. But ultimately Serbia gave in and took the path toward integration into the European political and economic system, where it will have no use for Mladic or his mad, outdated ethnic nationalism.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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