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Balkan commentator Richard Cowper says Belgrade's pragmatic new government has met one of Brussels' most important conditions for winning candidate status for entry to the European Union

Trial of world's top war crimes suspect propels Serbia towards a brighter European future

The early decision by the new government in Belgrade to arrest Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted alleged war criminals and send him for trial to the Hague, means that Serbia has at long last moved into the 21st century and is making a serious attempt to put nearly two decades of misery and virulent old-style nationalism behind it.

The action marks an important and decisive step on Serbia’s path towards eventually joining the European Union, alongside the rest of the once-troubled Balkan region.

Mr Karadzic stands accused of overseeing the execution of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica - a so-called United Nations "safe haven" for Muslim refugees during the 1992-5 Bosnia war. Heavily disguised in a great white beard that made him look like a Serbian Christian authodox monk, he had been in hiding since 1998 and was eventually captured in the country’s capital last Monday, where he had been masquerading as an expert in new age medicine.

As leader of Bosnia's Serbs, Mr Karadzic was seen by many Serbs as a hero doing his damndest to prevent the break-up of a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. Often on the front page during the Balkan wars he frequently met with international negotiators and his newspaper and TV interviews were leading news items during the 3 1/2-year Bosnian war, which started after Croatia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992.

By the time the Bosnia war ended in late 1995 with an estimated 250,000 people dead and another 1.5m driven from their homes, Mr Karadzic was seen – in the West at least - as part of an extreme and unsavoury Balkan past. He was charged twice by the United Nations war crimes tribunal with genocide against Bosnia's Croats and Muslims.

Many believe that over the last decade key members of the government in Belgrade had known of his whereabouts all along, but in a country still deeply split over its past, the authorities had not wanted to stir up old animosities by ordering his arrest.

This is no longer the case. After a famous political victory in the aftermath of this May’s Serbian general election the newly formed coalition government of President Boris Tadic has chosen to go full steam ahead to join the European Union as soon as is practical. One of the key conditions to secure EU candidate status is the arrest of outstanding ex-Yugoslav wanted war criminals.

To show that he means business Mr Tadic quickly replaced the head of Serbia's secret police, a man loyal to former nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica — a change that officials say helped to spur the country’s secret service into making Mr Karadzic's capture.

Such a move was by no means a foregone conclusion. Serbia’s decision to cast off its hard-fought reputation as one of the most defiant and singular countries in modern Europe , was touch and go to the very last.

Only five months ago an angry nationalist mob set fire to the American embassy in Belgrade after the former southern Serb province of Kosovo declared its independence from Belgrade on February 17, leading to the death of one of the demonstrators. The issue of Kosovo - regarded by many Serbs as the country’s religious, cultural and historic heartland - threatened to mire the country once again in the past and lead to a fresh outbreak of regional violence.

The newly-formed Democrat-led coalition government of Mr Tadic, whose decision it was to arrest Mr Karadzic, so very nearly failed to come into being altogether.

A right-wing radical nationalist coalition led by Mr Kostunica – a man notoriously sympathetic to Mr Karadzic - came very close to triumph in the post - May 11 2008 election bartering process. Surprisingly only the decision of former dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party to join in the pro-Western coalition alongside the democrat parties made Mr Tadic’s pro-EU governing coalition possible.

Mr Karadzic’s capture came just two weeks after some 11 parties, led by Prime-Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, finally managed to form a viable pro-Western coalition.

The arrest was quickly welcomed by Western countries who had openly campaigned for Mr Tadic’s coalition during the election and who say that the arrest is a vital condition for accepting Serbia's request to join the European Union. The EU, particularly Holland - whose incompetent soldiers did so little to prevent the Srebrenica massacre - had made it clear all along that Mr Karadzic’s arrest would be an essential and vital step if Belgrade were to win candidate status.

The capture is good news for international justice in general and the functioning of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague in particular.

The government in Belgrade will now be under pressure to engineer the capture and arrest of its other main alleged war criminal, General Mlatko Radic,. In fact the Serbian authorities said they had found Mr Karadzic while searching for Mr Mladic, a far more outspoken and brazen personality who, until a few years ago was said to have made regular and daring forays into the heart of old Belgrade.

Since 1995, both men had topped the UN war crime tribunal's most-wanted list, and both had a $5m US State Department bounty on their heads. Initially they were charged together, accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, for allegedly orchestrating the bloody siege of Sarajevo during Bosnia's 1992-95 war and the slaughter of up to 8,000 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica.

During Bosnia's war, Srebrenica wound up being overrun by Serbian forces loyal to the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

According to prosecutor s in a violent rampage that lasted almost a week Serb paramilitaries separated men and boys, forced them to strip, killed them and bulldozed their bodies into mass graves, leading to what many say was the worst civilian carnage in Europe since the Second World War. Later many of the bodies were said to have been burnt or moved to other hidden graves, which a leading French policeman spent almost a decade tracking down using the latest DNA and other police techniques.

More than 3,000 bodies have yet to be found or formally identified.

*Richard Cowper is an economist and foreign policy expert, who worked for the Financial Times of London for 30 years. He can be contacted by email at