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If Montenegro were to vote to secede from Serbia at the weekend and finally screw down the coffin lid on the corpse of Yugoslavia, General Ratko Mladic would be an apt choice as pallbearer and gravedigger-in-chief. The referendum is finely balanced. Attaining the EU-mandated 55% majority in favour of independence could be touch and go. But Belgrade's continuing failure to arrest Mladic, wanted for genocide by the UN's Hague tribunal, may yet tip the scale. It is helping persuade voters from Montenegro's Bosnian Muslim and Albanian minorities that Serbia, where roughly a third of voters still regard Mladic as a hero, is not a country they want to associate with any longer.
The so-called curse of Mladic, rooted in the unforgotten and unforgiven 1990s Balkan wars, is all-pervasive, bedevilling Serbia at home and abroad. Its prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, says he is doing all he can to catch the fugitive. Unimpressed, the EU put off preparatory membership talks this month. Negotiations would not resume, Brussels declared, until the man held responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre was in custody. Desperate to share in the economic and other EU benefits enjoyed by other former Yugoslav republics, Serbia is now the dunce of European integration.
The Mladic affair has led the US to threaten an aid cut-off. Serbia should be "a leader in Balkans, an example of prosperity and a keystone of regional stability", Michael Polt, the US ambassador to Belgrade, said last week. "Right now, I don't see that vision . . . Mladic must go to The Hague, not next week, not in September, not by the end of the year, but now."
The prospect of Montenegro's prece dent-setting secession, opposed by most Serbs, has in turn intensified Belgrade's fears that its hand will be fatally weakened in the coming diplomatic showdown over Kosovo. The breakaway majority ethnic-Albanian province, run by the UN since Nato's 1999 war to halt Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing, also appears destined for independence.
Serbia wants to retain formal control. Mr Kostunica appealed in Berlin on Monday for EU help in maintaining Serbia's territorial integrity. But bad blood over Mladic and all that his case symbolises means Belgrade's concerns, including the safety of Kosovo's ethnic Serb minority, may be brushed aside. Serb officials say ethnic Albanian attacks are increasing - but a UN report next month is expected to praise the Kosovan leadership's integration efforts.
Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro's pro-independence prime minister, has not been slow to exploit Serbia's haunted politics. "Djukanovic has used Serbia's failure to yield Mladic to good effect, saying that Montenegro was being held hostage by Serbia's lack of cooperation," said Igor Jovanovic on the Transitions Online website. Montenegrins' hopes of European integration would proceed faster without Serbia, Mr Djukanovic argues. And he says secession is "unstoppable" even if the 55% target is missed by a few points.
The Mladic saga is also threatening Mr Kostunica's coalition, prompting talk of early elections that might further inhibit decisive action. The ultra-nationalist opposition Radical party, whose leader, Vojislav Seslj, is in detention in The Hague, is meanwhile insisting that Mladic be protected from arrest at all costs.
"Creating new divisions and new borders will bring us nothing good," Mr Kostunica said, arguing that by staying together in their current loose union, Serbia and Montenegro would be stronger. Ironically, the EU shares his view, hence its insistence on a 55% or more pro-independence majority and a minimum 50% turnout. But like Mr Kostunica, it has been too weak to halt Mr Djukanovic's independence drive.
All of this suggests that until the poison of the 1990s Balkan wars, incorporated in Mladic, is finally drawn from the Serb body politic, key questions over Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, EU and Nato membership, and wider regional stability are unlikely to be happily resolved. Far from burying the past, Montenegro's close-run referendum may mark the beginning of a new cycle of uncertainty.