Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Belgrade Buys Time

Lazarevic’s decision to go to The Hague will help Serbia’s standing in Europe - but fugitive general Ratko Mladic has to follow him.
By Daniel Sunter

General Vladimir Lazarevic’s decision to surrender voluntarily to the Hague tribunal may lead to more extraditions of army and police generals who have been indicted for war crimes in Kosovo.


But local and foreign analysts agree that the surrender of fugitive Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, and several other indictees believed to reside in Serbia, must follow.


They warn that Lazarevic’s surrender may have bought some time for Belgrade - but the issue of cooperation with the UN court is far from resolved.


Lazarevic flew to The Hague on February 3 after deciding to accept the indictment against him following a January 28 meeting with Serbia’s prime minister Vojislav Kostunica.


He is the first of four indicted Serbian army and police generals to have taken this step after their indictments were made public late in 2003.


Many believe another two generals from the wanted list - police general Sreten Lukic and army general Nebojsa Pavkovic - will now follow in Lazarevic’s footsteps.


But observers in Belgrade warn against any temptation to think that Lazarevic’s actions will have impressed Mladic, who is accused of genocide in Srebrenica and has been on the run for a decade.


“Mladic will not be influenced by other people’s decisions to surrender voluntarily, even if they are army or police generals,” Belgrade military analyst Aleksandar Radic told IWPR, adding that Belgrade’s current strategy appears to be based on meeting the minimum requirements or expectations of the international community.


The issue of Mladic still appears to be wide open.


Since it took office in 2004, Kostunica’s government has consistently refused to arrest any individuals indicted by The Hague, insisting that cooperation with the court can only be achieved through the voluntary surrender of suspected war criminals.


Such a policy had stalled Serbia and Montenegro’s progress in the field of Euro-Atlantic integration, particularly so in respect to potential membership of the EU and NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme, PfP.


Observers believe that it was no accident that Lazarevic’s voluntary surrender came just as Belgrade was expecting an EU decision on a feasibility study for Serbia and Montenegro - the first step towards the goal of membership of the union.


Just before the former general surrendered, European Commission envoy Olli Rehn informed Belgrade that Serbia and Montenegro was close to receiving a green light for the feasibility study – and the only obstacle was its perceived lack of cooperation with The Hague.


The question remains whether the surrender of one general will be enough to unlock the negotiation process.


The good news for the Belgrade government seems to be that Lazarevic’s voluntary surrender had an effect on another general on the Kosovo list - his former superior officer Nebojsa Pavkovic.


Pavkovic, who earlier stubbornly refused even to consider giving himself in, informed the public through his lawyer that he would now receive the indictment and prepare documentation for his defence in The Hague. His lawyer has met with Kostunica to discuss the issue.


One more general may follow suit, namely Sreten Lukic. He was the first name on the Kosovo list to receive the indictment in late 2004, but he has not actually surrendered since then.


IWPR sources close to the Serbian police say Lukic had also been considering voluntary surrender but then postponed his decision allegedly owing to his poor health, following heart surgery last autumn.


The fourth person on the Kosovo list, police general Vlastimir Djordjevic, former head of public security, is reportedly hiding in Russia, which is why Belgrade says it cannot be held responsible for his extradition, or fulfil its obligations to the international community on his part.


Belgrade is endeavouring to persuade the indicted generals and the other Hague indictees to surrender voluntarily through public appeals for them to do so along with guarantees of legal assistance to them and their families. Serbian justice minister Zoran Stojkovic personally accompanied Lazarevic to The Hague as a sign of this.


Stojkovic also pledged to ensure that Lazarevic received all the assistance that he needed to defend himself before the tribunal.


On January 29, Serbia’s president Boris Tadic and his Serbia and Montenegro counterpart Svetozar Marovic publicly called on other indicted war criminals to follow Lazarevic’s example and surrender voluntarily.


But it seems uncertain that Mladic, who is allegedly hiding in Serbia, will heed such calls – or that any other high-profile indictees will surrender voluntarily.


The Kostunica government’s stubborn insistence that no indictees will be arrested has only increased the air of confusion.


Local analysts agree that the uncertainty over Mladic is unlikely to be resolved soon and that simply handing over the generals on the Kosovo list will not solve the problem of cooperation with the tribunal, and unlock negotiations on the country’s European integration.


Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP news agency in Belgrade, told IWPR, “The Serbian government is dragging its feet over the issue and trying to buy some time by offering three generals.


“It apparently believes that Brussels will accept the offer and give a go-ahead for the feasibility study.


“This is a positive step, but it’s only about buying time. A real breakthrough would be if Mladic were handed over - but there are no indications that this will happen.”


Other analysts concur. James Lyon of the International Crisis Group in Serbia described Lazarevic’s decision was “an encouraging sign” but added that it was also “too little, too late”.


“The surrender of a single general does not amount to full cooperation with The Hague,” Lyon added.


The US State Department would appear to agree. It has welcomed Lazarevic’s surrender, but insists that Serbia is still obliged to solve the issue of all the other indicted war criminals - including Mladic.


Daniel Sunter is IWPR’s contributor in Belgrade.