- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

European negotiators finally got tough with the bad guys on the other side of the table this week. Not Iran, of course, but the much less threatening and mostly supplicant government of Serbia. Which confirms some unhappy geopolitical truths.

The Europeans abruptly ended talks Wednesday on that country’s integration into the European Union over the status of genocidier Ratko Mladic, who remains at large with tacit government support despite voluminous war-crimes charges. The move has thrown Serbia’s political establishment into chaos: The deputy prime minister and chief EU negotiator resigned hours later, pointing fingers at Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s government and calling its purpose into question.

The EU’s displeasure is amply justified, of course, and comes with plenty of warning. Mladic, head of the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, is without doubt the most wanted man in Europe and the symbol of all that remains wrong with Serbia. He has run free for 10 years despite charges of crimes against humanity in connection with the slaughter of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 and other wartime horrors. Fervent nationalism in Serbia has so far caused the government to softpedal, purposely missing opportunities to arrest the general and his protecters.

This week the Europeans acted. “It is disappointing that Belgrade has been unable to locate, arrest and transfer Ratko Mladic to The Hague,” said Olli Rehn, the EU’s commissioner for enlargement. The end of talks threatens to upend years of Serbian efforts to convince Europe that it has overcome the problems of the 1990s — and would ruin what is arguably Serbia’s best chance to become a normal European nation.

If all this results in Mladic’s capture and prosecution, that’s clearly to the good. But it also raises another question: What does this say about the West’s criteria for getting tough? Does it mean that countries without oil, suicide bombers or missiles pointed at democratic capitals should start thinking about getting them?

To strongmen in Damascus or Pyongyang the irresistible conclusion would be something like this. The strong do as they can and the weak do as they must. Serbia is weak. It poses little or no threat to its European neighbors. It has no leverage against Western powers seeking to bend its will. Therefore it’s no surprise the Europeans have taken a hard line. They have nothing to lose.

Contrast this with Europe’s handling of Iran and the implications are clear enough. None of which should be taken to suggest that the European hard line on Mladic is unwarranted. But the selectivity of punishing Serbia rings hollow in ways that get notice in all the wrong places.

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