It was fitting that Serbia's President, Boris Tadic, himself announced the arrest of Ratko Mladic in Belgrade on May 26. Nobody has put in a greater effort to run down the indicted war crimes suspect than Tadic. For years, foreign governments and, above all, the chief prosecutor of the Hague tribunal, have accused him of not having done enough to find the former Bosnian Serb general. They implied that Tadic was frightened that a nationalist backlash in the event of Mladic being arrested might even lead to the toppling of his government.
His own Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica — until he left office in 2008 — systematically dragged his feet during the hunt for Mladic, and some diplomats suspected he hindered the investigation. Tadic, by contrast, placed the capture of Mladic at the top of his political agenda from the moment he was elected president in 2004. He knew full well that until that happened, Serbia's aspiration to join the EU would be blocked.
In his previous incarnation as Minister of Defence, Tadic had undertaken a root-and-branch reform of the Serbian military, which included breaking up the military intelligence operatives suspected of forming the backbone of Mladic's supporters when he went into hiding. Tadic also oversaw the reform of Serbia's domestic intelligence service, bringing in younger agents who were less susceptible to the old yet hugely powerful secret police network built up under communism before the break-up of Yugoslavia.
While in public, western governments have criticised Tadic for not doing enough on Mladic, and maintained debilitating sanctions at the request of the Hague tribunal, behind the scenes Tadic permitted an unprecedented level of co-operation between his security forces and western intelligence agents. Their number one goal was to find and extradite Mladic.
Like his friend, and sometime mentor, Zoran Djindjic — the reforming Serbian Prime Minister assassinated by dissident nationalist paramilitaries in 2003 — Tadic's greatest asset has been his determination to face down conservative and nationalist forces who threaten disruption. The President had witnessed how the earlier arrests and extradition to the Hague of the toppled Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, and the Bosnian Serb military leader, Radovan Karadzic, had not triggered a nationalist revolt. Serbs merely shrugged their shoulders.
It was often argued that Mladic was different and that, as a military man, he would act as a more powerful magnet to the malcontents in Serbia ready to exploit the widespread disaffection resulting from the current economic crisis. That is almost certainly not going to happen. It is undoubtedly true that many Serbs are still convinced that the west has singled out Serbia for special punishment in the wake of the conflict of the 1990s. But they are not going to sacrifice the benefits that they will accrue from EU membership out of spite. Most Serbs inside Serbia are no longer interested in the fate of Mladic; possibly they never were. The pull of the EU long ago trumped the mystique surrounding the wartime leader.
Furthermore, enough has now been published and broadcast in Serbia for people to realise that Mladic was not the knight in shining armour many once thought he was. The first chink had appeared a year before the notorious massacre at Srebrenica, when his daughter, Ana — seemingly distraught at her father's growing reputation as a mass murderer — committed suicide in Belgrade.
It is again thanks to Tadic that the revelations about Mladic's psychopathic tendencies have been properly aired in Serbia. He has taken the lead in denouncing the bloody crimes committed by the Bosnian Serb forces as well as atrocities such as the mass killing at Ovcara in Croatia and the siege of Vukovar. He has bowed down and sought forgiveness for these events on behalf of Serbia.
These courageous acts have received little media attention outside the former Yugoslavia. But the arrest of Mladic is the final proof that Tadic is a man of deeds as well as words.
Most of the obstacles blocking Serbia's path to EU membership will now be lifted. But this does not mean that peace and harmony are about to break out in the region. Serbia continues to face one huge, unresolved issue — the constitutional mess surrounding Kosovo, which has been recognised as independent by most EU countries but which Serbia and one or two allies refuse to accept. Although Serbia and Kosovo are engaged in exploratory talks to overcome these difficulties, at the moment the two sides seem to be extremely far apart.
But that is overwhelmingly a political issue. What Boris Tadic has done with Mladic is to take a huge step towards the moral rehabilitation of Serbs and Serbia whose reputation was so catastrophically compromised by the wars of the 1990s. He deserves our support and respect. (Misha Glenny is author of The Fall of Yugoslavia) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011