Mladic Arrest Marks Watershed for Serbia
When President Boris Tadic triumphantly announced to the world on May 26 that the suspect most wanted by the Hague tribunal, ex-general Ratko Mladic, had finally been arrested, it was apparent that a chapter in Serbia’s history had finally closed and a new era had begun.
The former head of the Bosnian Serb army had been earlier that day in the village of Lazarevo, after being on the run for nearly 16 years.
By apprehending Mladic, the Serbian authorities have proved two things – that they have the capacity to bring all remaining fugitives to justice, and that they are committed to joining the European Union. Progress towards EU accession had been made conditional on Mladic’s arrest.
Shortly after the news broke, observers in Serbia and abroad started speculating how this event would play out for Serbia, especially for President Tadic’s pro-European government.
There is little doubt in anyone's mind that Belgrade will seek to capitalise on this coup and impress upon the EU that Serbia must now be taken very seriously as a potential member.
For years, the main obstacle on Serbia’s path to the membership was its failure to arrest all remaining fugitives on the Hague tribunal’s list of suspects. Just a few years ago, Serbia was believed to be sheltering three of them – former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, Mladic and the former leader of the rebel Serbs in Croatia, Goran Hadzic.
In July 2008, Karadzic was held in Belgrade and extradited to The Hague, greatly improving Serbia’s image within the region and beyond. But as it turned out, this one arrest was not enough to secure a date for the start of negotiations on EU accession.
Since then, Tadic’s government has struggled to prove to the Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, that it has been doing everything in its power to apprehend Hadzic and above all Mladic.
Brammertz was unimpressed. On May 10, he visited Belgrade to look at progress on the manhunt. The assessment he made was expected to have a significant impact on Serbia's EU accession bid, as full cooperation with the tribunal was a central condition for further progress.
In a report he was due to present to the United Nations Security Council on June 6, Brammertz reportedly described Serbia’s strategy as “entirely unsuccessful”. According to the Serbian broadcaster B92, his report said the government needed to reconsider all the steps that had been taken so far, to review its current strategy and methods, and fix all the problems with them. It called for a "new, significantly more rigorous approach in the search for the fugitives".
Mladic’s arrest proved Brammertz wrong – or at least that is what Serbian officials have said in unison. The consensus view they expressed was that all the criticism had been misplaced, and the door to the EU should final open.
The authorities’ success in apprehending Mladic has been duly noted by EU officials. The European Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule, said it was “a historical move for Serbia which removed a great obstacle on the country’s path to EU membership.”
“If you ask me whether Serbia is closer to the EU today than it was yesterday, the answer is yes, absolutely,” he said.
However, Fule added as a cautionary note that this arrest does not mean all the obstacles have been removed – Belgrade still has to do implement many reforms required by the EU before talks on membership can begin.
While riding the wave of international praise, the Serbian government is well aware of the need to handle this sensitive issue deftly on the domestic scene. Mladic was very popular in Serbia, where some recent polls indicate that he is still regarded as a hero by 40 per cent of the population.
Although Karadzic’s arrest in 2008 did not stir up unrest in Serbia and brought only a small crowd of protesters onto the streets, the authorities have been taking no chances this time round. They have tightened security in all major town and imposed a ban on public gatherings. So far, there have been only minor expressions of anger.
The timing of the arrest has been a subject of much speculation. Tadic has denied claims that the swoop on Lazarevo was carefully planned to coincide with Brammertz’s upcoming speech at the UN Security Council. He dismissed as “rubbish” allegations that the authorities had known where Mladic was all the time and were just waiting for the right moment to make the arrest.
But even those who dismiss conspiracy theories have to admit that the timing was excellent for Tadic’s pro-western government.
It leaves enough time before the next parliamentary election, scheduled for March 2012, for the Serbian leadership to be able to derive the maximum benefit from the arrest, and at the same time to regain the confidence of voters who are unhappy about it. To make this strategy work, Tadic will need strong support from the EU, above all a clear signal that membership is imminent.
Another plus point is that the Serbian media, much of which is under the government’s influence, have chosen not to repeat the mistakes they made after Karadzic’s arrest three years ago. Observers criticised the media for completely ignoring the crimes for which Karadzic had been indicted, and focusing largely on the trivia surrounded his arrest, his drastically changed appearance, and the years he spent living under an assumed identity in Belgrade.
This time, the state broadcaster RTS did an outstanding job. It not only reported accurately and impartially on news developments, the implications for Serbia, and reactions from the region and the wider world; it also made a conscious effort to provide its audience with the details of the crimes for which Mladic has been indicted.
RTS television showed several documentaries about the crimes committed in Srebrenica in July 1995, the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, and reels of archive footage showing Mladic as an unpredictable and arrogant commander displaying no respect for the UN troops deployed in Bosnia, no empathy for civilians, and no mercy for his enemies.
This was a very different RTS from the television station that was once instrumental in promoting the then regime of the late Slobodan Milosevic, who was accused of playing a major role in all the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.
Probably under instruction from the current government, RTS now assumed a completely different role, with a reconciliatory tone. In an effort to alter the image of Mladic as hero, the broadcaster is finally telling the public the truth about what happened in the Balkan conflicts.
That is probably the best consequence of Mladic’s arrest that one could possibly have hoped for.
Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s ICTY programme manager.