Serbian government teeters over Mladic

The government of Serbia was staggering towards collapse recently because of the continued liberty of General Ratko Mladic, Europe’s most-wanted man and genocide suspect.

The European Union called off talks on Serbia’s integration with the EU after Belgrade reneged on its promise to arrest the fugitive former Bosnian war commander.

The deputy prime minister resigned in protest at the duplicity of his government, and the chief prosecutor at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague accused the Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, of lying to her. Several other Cabinet ministers could also quit, bringing down the government and paving the way for a take-over by extreme nationalists.

Miroljub Labus, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Serbia’s negotiations with Brussels, stepped down, saying he wanted nothing more to do with Kostunica’s policies.

The prime minister, to widespread disbelief, claimed that Mladic’s entire network had been smashed and the fugitive, indicted more than a decade ago and on the run for five years, was on his own.

That cut little ice with Carla del Ponte, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, who was promised by Kostunica a month ago that Mladic would be captured and sent to The Hague. “I have been misled,’’ she said.

Del Ponte said the Kostunica government knew where Mladic was hiding as recently as 10 days ago and had decided not to arrest him at the end of January in the hope that he would surrender.
Kostunica has been keen on a Mladic “surrender’‘, a strategy that Del Ponte said was “completely unrealistic and simply wrong’‘.

Announcing the freeze on Belgrade’s negotiations with Brussels, which had been due to resume next week, Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for enlargement, indicated Serbia was not fit for talks on association with the EU since its “security services and military intelligence have not been fully under the civilian democratic control of the Serbian government’‘.

Labus accused the prime minister of betraying the Serbian public. “As a deputy prime minister and the head of the negotiating team for EU accession I do not want to take part in such policies,’’ he said, in a bitter attack on Kostunica.

Opposition parties called for the Cabinet’s resignation as the Kostunica government faced its biggest crisis since it was formed two years ago.

The Kostunica government is a weak, minority coalition. If Labus’s colleagues quit at the weekend, the government will fall, triggering snap elections.

The extreme nationalist Serbian Radical party, whose leader is in jail in The Hague awaiting a war crimes trial, is the strongest party in Serbia. While it would struggle to muster a parliamentary majority, it could govern with the support of forces still loyal to former president Slobodan Milosevic, who died in custody in The Hague in March. A radical government of extreme nationalists would end Serbia’s hopes of integration with Europe and bring renewed international isolation.

Kostunica’s troubles are compounded by two events. On Thursday in Vienna at talks on the independence of the southern province of Kosovo, the Serbs were promised extensive local government autonomy but warned that they have little chance of preventing Kosovo’s breakaway. And in little more than a fortnight Montenegro votes in a referendum also likely to result in its breakaway from Serbia.—Â

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