The first landmark agreement between Serbia and independent Kosovo – reached this month after three years of standoff – should have received more attention in Western media. So should Serbian President Boris Tadic's landmark comment about Greece.
True, the real breakthrough was the amazing discovery in Serbia of genocide indictee General Ratko Mladic, at the house of a cousin also surnamed Mladic, after 16 years of Belgrade's vain search for him in a country the size of South Carolina. Serbian special police suddenly saw through his clever open disguise – he affected no patriarchal beard or alias à la Radovan Karadzic – as the European Union cancelled membership talks with Belgrade in May over Belgrade's decade-and-a-half failure to arrest him.
Mladic, the commanding Serb general as close to 8000 unarmed Bosniak men and boys were massacred at Srebrenica in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s, was promptly extradited to the international war-crimes tribunal at The Hague. Serbian-EU talks duly resumed. Tadic foresaw early entry into the club by his country. That dramatic news, at least, was widely covered in the West.
Yet Mladic's extradition, the EU-mediated pragmatic deal allowing residents of Kosovo to travel in Serbia on Kosovo identity papers, and Tadic's aside that Serbia would not be another Greece in the EU need to be seen as a package.
Together, they show a turning point in mentality away from assumptions – comparable perhaps to the once-upon-a-time German sonderweg and American exceptionalism – of Serbs' natural hegemonic rights as the largest nationality in the Balkans.
For the span of a generation after the wars of the Yugoslav succession broke out in the early 1990s, many Serbs saw themselves as special victims of the West, of the Hague prosecutors – and, above all, of NATO's 1999 intervention to stop Serb ethnic cleansing of the 80-percent majority Albanians in Kosovo that followed on the Srebrenica massacre. They contended that armed Serbs were only defending minority Serb victims of Croats, Bosniaks, and Albanians in the 1990s.
They read discrimination into the Hague tribunal's indictment of more Serbs than any other Balkan nationality. They scorned the court's evidence that it was the Serbs' army and militias that were responsible for the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II and for the siege of civilians in Sarajevo that lasted longer than the siege of Leningrad. Even after the assassination in 2003 of pro-Western Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic by ex-Red Berets with ultranationalist backing, many Serbian voters continued to favor the anti-EU, anti-NATO, pro-Russian Radical Party.
Indeed, in the cliffhanger run-off vote in 2008 on the eve of Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia, pro-EU Boris Tadic won re-election as president by only 51 percent. His Radical rival – whose party leader Vojislav Seselj was already at The Hague on war-crimes charges – warned the EU not to "blackmail" Belgrade and advocated sending the Serbian army back into the Serbian province of Kosovo to prevent its secession. And Tadic won the vote only by swearing that he too would never surrender Kosovo, thus avoiding a Kosovo-vs.-EU campaign contest.
In this atmosphere, Tadic never delivered folk-hero Mladic to The Hague in the first seven years of his presidency. He did, however, lay a wreath at Srebrenica at the tenth-anniversary commemoration of the massacre in 2005. And he did gradually squeeze out of the security services many of the ultranationalist fans of creating a Greater Serbia out of Yugoslavia's disintegration.
By now, more than a decade after the Balkan wars – and with the hardship of global recession diminishing the allure of conquest – the time has come to move beyond the passions of those wars, even in Serbia. By now, the economic attraction of the European Union, despite the EU's inconvenient precondition for membership of rule of law and peace with neighbors, is triumphing over Serbs' traditional inat, or "malevolent, vengeful and obstinate defiance, " as writer Aleksa Djilas defines it.
Thus, Mladic's extradition to The Hague provoked only a faint echo of the street demonstrations that protested the extradition of strongman Milosevic to The Hague in 2000. Serbia, after three years of stonewalling, is finally willing to find – with the help of the EU – practical solutions to neighborly issues with the independent Kosovo it does not recognize.
And, as Tadic puts it, Serbia foreswears, when it becomes an EU member, acting like Greece. He was referring, of course, to the financial crisis that now threatens to pull down both the euro and even the whole post-World-War-II project of European integration. But he might have been foregoing as well the kind of adamant refusal Athens has displayed in vetoing the name of "Macedonia" for the two-decade-young state of Macedonia. Or the kind of aversion to the Roman Catholic and Protestant West many Orthodox Serbs have long claimed to share with Greeks.
Despite the European Union's current vicissitudes, it seems the EU's soft power of model prosperity and hard-won peace really does appeal to prospective members. And it does strengthen the hand of would-be reformers in candidate countries in gradually isolating the militants in their own societies.
Now for Bosnia.
Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.