Observers say the arrest of of Europe’s most-wanted war crimes suspect, Bosnian Serb military General Ratko Mladic, will help clear up international concerns about Serbia and support its reconciliation process. But while the legal process moves ahead, the country may have more difficulty letting go of the past.
Reporters at the press conference where Serbian President Boris Tadic broke the news of Mladic's detention questioned the timing of the announcement, suggesting it may not have been a coincidence the arrest happened during a visit by Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy chief. Ashton was in Belgrade to discuss Serbia's EU application. Tadic dismissed the speculation.
"We are not making calculations when and how to deliver," said President Tadic. "We are doing that because we truly believe this is in accordance with our law. This is because of our people, Serbs. This is because of moral dignity of our country and our people. But this is crucially important in terms of reconciliation between people that are living in the region of southeast Europe’s former Yugoslavia."
Serbia has been under intense pressure to arrest Mladic. The top prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia recently warned that a much more rigorous approach was needed to find Mladic. And the EU has tied Serbia’s membership to the detention of the military leader accused of orchestrating the genocide of nearly 8,000 Muslims men and boys in Srebrenica, a small Bosnian town on the border of Serbia. The 1995 massacre was Europe’s worst since World War II.
Refik Hodzic of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York says the pressure appears to have worked.
“I don’t think we that we would see the arrest of Ratko Mladic had it not been for this," said Hodzic.
The tribunal at The Hague, Netherlands indicted Mladic in 1995 for the Srebrenica massacre and for atrocities committed during the three-year siege of the Bosnian city of Sarajevo.
Hodzic said prosecutors not only will be looking for evidence linking Mladic to those crimes, but for information on how the general evaded arrest for so long.
“There were various allegations both from the tribunal in The Hague and the media in the region that he was protected throughout the years by the Serbian military, by the state institutions," he said. "And a telling fact is that men from the community where he lived, where he was arrested, men said, ‘Well, we never noticed anything strange but an increased presence of the police in the last months and years.’”
The Serbian president said there will be an investigation into how Mladic was living freely for 15 years. The issue touches on deep divisions within Serbia about whether Mladic should be prosecuted.
War Hero or Criminal?
A poll conducted for the government’s National Council for Cooperation with The Hague Tribunal this month said 78 percent of those surveyed would not report Mladic to the authorities.
“Many Serbs, yes, do regard Ratko Mladic as some sort of hero," said James Ker-Lindsay, an expert with the European Institute at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
“They look to the events that took place in Bosnia and rather than seeing him as a military leader of an act of aggression rather view him as being the defender of the Bosnian Serb people," he said. "So in that sense, there is a certain degree of latent support for him.”
But he says Serbians are conflicted because they understand their country’s future has to be a part of Europe.
“It’s not about forgetting what took place in Bosnia or, indeed, the entire Western Balkans in the 1990s," said Ker-Lindsay. "But it’s about recognizing that Serbia’s got to atone for this, pay its price and move on. And people understand that Mladic is absolutely central to that process.”
Relatives of Srebrenica’s victims welcomed news of Mladic’s arrest but expressed some reservations. Kada Hotic, a member of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, accused Serbia of knowingly hiding Mladic, who she called a “monster.”
She said even though the general is being handed over to justice, she is afraid his trial will end without a verdict, as happened in the case of Slobodan Milosevic. The former Yugoslav president died in his prison cell in 2006 before his war crimes trial concluded.
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader during wartime, is currently on trial at The Hague. Even after Mladic's own trial begins, Hodzic said the Serbian government must tell the people it sent Mladic to prison because he committed genocide, not just because it is good for the country’s image.
“And until that happens, I think this sort of instability that exists will not go away because the nationalist narrative," Hodzic said. "The anger is there. The victims don’t see satisfaction through these trials because they are not followed by acknowledgment in the local community by the government.”
While Serbia's internal process of healing is uncertain, the country’s external relations are unclear, as well. One last Serbian fugitive is wanted in The Hague. The EU has yet to say whether Belgrade must also arrest political leader Goran Hadizc, or whether three out of four suspected war criminals is good enough.