If one were to ask Serbs about what they needed more - General Ratko Mladic, who was delivered to the international detention center of The Hague war crimes tribunal on Tuesday, or membership in the European Union (EU) - the majority would certainly vote for the latter. The economy and living conditions in Serbia are in such bad shape that EU membership is viewed as almost the only cure for all of its ills. This is partly true. Brussels has announced more than once that the EU would lift all obstacles to Serbia's entry after the extradition of General Ratko Mladic, the former commander of Bosnian Serb troops during the 1992-1995 war, to The Hague.
So, it was made abundantly clear that Mladic was Serbia's ticket into the EU. On June 1, he was transferred to a cell in The Hague.
Belgrade signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU in 2008, but the Netherlands blocked its entry because it regarded Mladic's extradition as a matter of honor since it was Dutch soldiers that protected refugee camps in Srebrenica, where the largest massacre of Muslims allegedly took place. Now all objections are being withdrawn. The ticket into the EU has been paid for, but the price is too high.
If only everything in Serbia were so simple. If Serbia's ability to accept its own difficult past, achieve reconciliation with its neighbors, overcome the chaos and divisions in its society, which has been split into Westerners and nationalists, and resolve everyday troubles depended solely on the arrest of Mladic, he probably would have ended up at the Hague Tribunal a long time ago. If this were the case...
However, the nations that have been fragmented into several states (for instance, Kosovo) cannot heal their wounds so easily and quickly. The Serbian national character and the Balkan hot temper are resistant to any treatment.
For a week now radical parties in Serbia have taken to the streets with those who see Mladic as a hero. They consider President Tadic a traitor of national interests and a Western puppet. These actions are likely to continue throughout the trial of the 69-year-old general.
Much has been written about what he did and what he is charged with. It is strange that he has been found guilty of everything even before the trial. Both sides committed atrocities in this war, but this is a separate issue that requires investigations, confirmations, etc. The trial will last for more than one or two years. The trial of former Yugoslav President Milosevic went on for more than four years until he died in prison.
Demonizing a nation is easy
It would be incorrect to say that the overwhelming majority of Serbs strongly support Mladic - not at all.
The demonization of Serbs, which began after Yugoslavia began to be crushed and torn apart, was used to justify the NATO bombings in 1999. The bombings had shocking results, producing an image of Serbs that was so distorted that they appeared as monsters.
All Serbs were judged not by their true nature, that is by generosity, loyalty and hospitality (famous in the Balkans), but through the prism of the mistakes, shortcomings and disgusting acts of their then leaders. In effect, Milosevic surrendered Kosovo himself.
It would be the same as if we judged all Americans by the example of George W. Bush Jr., concluding that they are all illiterate, primitive and arrogant.
However, politicians, journalists and analysts all accused Serbia of war crimes, immorality and the inability to acknowledge cruelty, acts of genocide and murders. They said there was no way to change Serbs and that they would never recover morally unless they extradited Mladic.
This has never been true. Most people are aware of what Mladic did and what he is guilty of, but they also have many other concerns and merely thought that Mladic's arrest was a strange PR exercise, and one that was a little too loud. It looked like Serbs were once again being reminded of their monstrosity. Nationalists and Westerners had opposing but equally extreme reactions to this. However, most people reacted to this case only with cynicism. Serbs understand what civil war is all about, with its crimes and victims. More than half of Serbs believed that if Mladic, or anyone else for that matter, was accused of brutal murders and the shelling of civilian cities, he must be judged. But they find it difficult to understand why Hashim Thaci, the Albanian leader of Kosovo's forces and one of the leaders of the Kosovo mafia that has been accused of murdering thousands of Serbs and being involved in organ-trafficking, is not only at large but is still the prime minister of Kosovo. Why did the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia first condemn and then acquit Naser Oric, the former leader of the Bosnian Muslims in ill-fated Srebrenica? He was accused of turning a blind eye to the murder of Serbian prisoners by his forces. Similar charges will be leveled against Mladic, but it remains to be seen how this trial will differ from the other.
Serbs cannot understand why Mladic, Milosevic and Karadzic (the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs) could not have been tried in Serbia as many reasonable people suggested. At any rate, it would have been possible to avoid escalating tensions in the country. Serbia has enough lawyers to protect the rights of all the defendants.
Slavic friendship replaced with hydrocarbon cooperation
While Mladic was in hiding, obvious attempts were being made to distance Serbia further away from Russia. In the early 2000s, the Americans spread rumors that he took refuge in Russia and was settled quite comfortably there. This is clear from the U.S. State Department cables that were released by WikiLeaks. The reasoning was simple - if Mladic, an international criminal, lives in Moscow, then Russia must be blocking Serbia's progress, its entry to the EU and accession to Western civilization. It was a shameless tactic, but it was effective.
However, Serbia's alienation from Russia began even earlier - when Moscow did nothing serious to stop NATO bombings in 1999. The then Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov only made the empty gesture of ordering his plane to turn around mid-air as he was on his way to the United States.
Now it is clear that the historical ties between Russia and Serbia have been severed and that Serbia has opted to join the EU.
Slovenia is already in the EU. Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro are official candidates. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and now Serbia are potential candidates. It seems that the Balkan issue, which has tormented the world so much since the 19th century, will soon become a thing of the past. We'll still be friends with Serbia, but now on the basis of the South Stream project. But this will be an entirely different sort of relationship - one based on hydrocarbons rather than on Slavic friendship.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.