The election this month of a pro-western coalition government in Belgrade went largely unremarked across the EU despite memories of what happened when Serbian nationalists turned their back on Europe in the 1990s and plunged headlong into the horror of the Bosnian war. Following the arrest by the Serbian authorities of the notoriously elusive war crimes suspect, Radovan Karadzic, it is a safe bet that Britain and its partners will be paying a lot more attention to Serbia from now on.
It seems a long time ago, but the convulsions that shook the Balkans as the late Slobodan Milosevic pursued his vision of a "greater Serbia" transfixed western Europeans. They simply did not want to believe that atrocities such as concentration camps, mass rape, ethnic cleansing and the pitiless slaughter of civilian populations had returned to a continent still mindful of, and chastened by, the second world war's terrible legacy.
Those events left deep wounds, diplomatic as well as human, that the capture, at last, of the renegade Bosnian Serb leader may go a significant way towards healing. The arrest is now likely to prove a watershed not only in the search for justice pursued by the victims of the war but also for battered, long frosty relations between Serbia and the EU.
Considered a pariah state for its reluctance or inability to pursue the most wanted war criminals long after the fighting had ended, Belgrade now has a leadership – principally the president, Boris Tadic, and prime minister, Mirko Cvetkovic, – that actively wants to cooperate and finally put the past behind it.
"The new government is expected to make a bigger effort to track down these men [Karadzic and the other most wanted man, General Ratko Mladic]. There's going to be a big push even though a lot of people in Belgrade don't think the Hague tribunal [for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia] is fair," a Serbian official told the Guardian last week. Few expected that a breakthrough would come so soon, with Karadzic reportedly being picked up on a bus in Belgrade last Friday.
Javier Solana, the EU's foreign affairs representative, signalled its importance in terms of Serbia's aspiration to join the EU. "They have proven their will to cooperate fully with the UN. I welcome it very much … This is a good day for justice in the Balkans," he said. EU foreign ministers meeting today are now expected to give further encouragement to Belgrade's membership application following the initial association agreement signed in April.
Solana was quick to indicate that important unfinished business remains, meaning principally the capture of Mladic. Whereas Karadzic seems to have been under surveillance for some time, pending a political decision to pick him up, the whereabouts of the man held most responsible for the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, and numerous other crimes is apparently more of a mystery. "No one [in the government] knows where Mladic is – they really don't," the Serbian official said.
Much scepticism surrounds such claims. And the coincidence of the change in power in Belgrade, accompanied by an apparent weakening of hardline nationalist sentiment, and Karadzic's out-of-the-blue arrest after more than a decade on the run is striking. It suggests that the shadowy current or former security service and military figures who are said to harbour Mladic may soon be outmanoeuvred.
"Radovan Karadzic personified impunity for more than a decade but his efforts to run the clock on justice have failed," said Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch. "That Ratko Mladic is still at liberty is a major obstacle … The EU must insist that Serbia surrender him."
Karadzic's arrest has wider ramifications. It marks a big boost for the Hague court that has been under growing criticism for its slow-moving and allegedly partial processes. Russia recently called for the court to be wound up immediately. Its anger was sparked by the acquittal on appeal of a well-known Bosnian Muslim, Naser Oric, who was accused of complicity in the 1990s murders of Serbs, and the freeing of the former Kosovo Liberation Army chief, Ramush Haradinaj.
By implication, the Karadzic arrest also strengthens other systems for administering international or transnational justice, notably the international criminal court. Its indictment last week of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, on genocide charges was widely dismissed in Africa as an insulting stunt that would lead to nothing. That conclusion looks a little bit less certain this morning. On the other hand, the fact that the Serbs themselves, not Nato or any other international agency, collared Karadzic suggests that the search for justice must start at home.
The problems associated with the reintegration of Serbia into Europe remain formidable. The sharpest difference concerns the future of Kosovo, the Serbian province that declared independence with EU and US backing earlier this year. The reformers in Belgrade insist they will "never" recognise Kosovo as an independent state. European diplomats and politicians say they will have to if Serbia really wants to be a full member of the club.
Belgrade's next move will be to seek a UN general assembly resolution in September asking the international court of justice to consider whether Kosovo's UDI was illegal. Serbia had a lot of sympathy for its case, the Serbian official claimed, noting that only 43 out of 192 countries have recognised Kosovo.
Karadzic's capture, and the aura of returning respectability surrounding Belgrade, may only deepen international support for Serbia's Kosovo cause. The better Serbia "behaves", the more likely perhaps that this year's highly unusual and arguably unworkable, destabilising forced partition of its sovereign territory will be reconsidered. That canny calculation may lie behind the Karadzic sensation.