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

Karadzic in Trouble

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic appears more vulnerable than ever
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

The arrest of Hague indictee Dragan Obrenovic on April 15 must have come as dire news to former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.


It comes at a time when Serbia is showing clear signs of increased cooperation with the Hague tribunal and the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, in Bosnia - the party founded by Karadzic - appears eager to distance itself from its notorious former leader.


Obrenovic, a lieutenant colonel in the Republika Srpska army, was detained by S-For personnel in Kozluk, near Zvornik. He did not resist arrest and was immediately deported to The Hague, ending a six-month-long lull in S-For arrest activity.


A sealed indictment against Obrenovic for crimes against Bosnian civilians and soldiers in Srebrenica in July 1995 was issued on April 9.


Tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said Obrenovic's arrest indicated S-For had "started a new wave of arrests".


She has been sharply critical of international troops in Bosnia for their passivity in recent months. The last arrest operation was carried out on October 13, 2000, against Janko Janjic Tuta, wanted for alleged crimes in Foca, eastern Bosnia.


Tuta let off a hand grenade when approached by S-For troops, killing himself and, some suspect, several S-For soldiers.


S-For has never confirmed the number of casualties it took during the operation, but there is speculation that its losses contributed to the downturn in the number of arrests it made in the following six months.


The choice of Obrenovic could also be put down to this desire to avoid risk. He offered a much easier target then Janjic or Karadzic. In the past year, Obrenovic twice responded to summons from tribunal investigators and attended hearings in Banja Luka.


Obrenovic told the investigators he was prepared to go to The Hague if indicted. His lawyer, Krstan Simic, confirmed this.


Detaining Karadzic and deporting him to The Hague will not be so straightforward, although it does now seem inevitable. The former SDS leader is believed to be hiding in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, surrounded by 20 of his most loyal security staff.


Obrenovic's arrest came three days after a visit by United States Secretary of State Colin Powell to Sarajevo. International officials told IWPR Powell had reluctantly agreed to S-For making further arrests after coming under pressure from non-government organisations and high-profile members of the previous US administration headed by former Balkan envoy Richard Holbrook and ex secretary of state Madeleine Albright.


Meanwhile, events in Belgrade do not augur well for Karadzic. Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic is now behind bars and although Belgrade is insisting he must be prosecuted by the Serbian courts, his transfer to the Hague appears to be only a matter of time.


Belgrade is taking steps towards closer cooperation with The Hague. A law on this is being prepared and in March Hague indictee Milomir Stakic, one-time mayor of Prijedor, was arrested by Serbian police and transferred to the tribunal.


Del Ponte had brought two sealed indictments to Belgrade in January, naming Stakic and Stojan Zupljanin, the wartime police chief in Banja Luka. Both were believed to be hiding in Serbia.


Zupljanin is still at large following fierce protests from Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica over the arrest and extradition of Stakic.


Nevertheless, it is clear Serbia is no longer a sure safe haven for Karadzic, even though the former Bosnian Serb leader at one time worked with Kostunica and Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic after his split with Milosevic.


Velibor Ostojic, a former senior official in Karadzic's government, found the new atmosphere in Serbia not at all to his liking.


Ostojic left Bosnia for Serbia two years ago. On learning his name was probably on a sealed indictment for crimes against Bosniaks in Foca, he applied for Yugoslav citizenship. A few days after Stakic's extradition, Ostojic received a summons to meet the Yugoslav interior minister Zoran Zivkovic in person to receive his citizenship papers.


Ostojic suspected he would be pressurised at the meeting to surrender to the Hague and decided to decline Zivkovic's invitation and abandon his attempt to become a Yugoslav citizen.


Back in Bosnia, Karadzic can no longer rely on the protection of the Banja Luka authorities, or even on the SDS. The Milosevic arrest has intensified pressure on the authorities to extradite him.


A week before Milosevic was detained, Del Ponte visited Banja Luka and made Bosnian Serb reformist prime minister, Mladen Ivanic, an offer - should local police arrest Karadzic, the tribunal would be prepared to release five Bosnian Serb detainees from the UN detention unit to face trial in Bosnia.


Ivanic said his government lacked the political strength to make the arrest because Karadzic still enjoys support among the majority of Bosnian Serbs.


By contrast, however, the majority of Bosnian Serb political leaders, including those in the SDS, would be glad to see the back of Karadzic, whom they perceive as a millstone around the entity's neck.


International pressure has been aimed, not at Ivanic's government, but at the SDS.


"If the SDS had truly changed as it claims they could have extradited Karadzic to The Hague before now," said Thomas Miller, US Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Although the SDS scored a convincing victory in last November's general elections, the international administration has said the party cannot become part of the government until Karadzic is handed over and the SDS proves it is a reformed political force.


To date, the SDS has managed only clumsy attempts to distance itself from its founder. No official has been strong enough to make a public break. Instead, an "anonymous source close to the SDS leadership" told the Banja Luka magazine Reporter that the party no longer considered Karadzic a member.


"Karadzic has not taken part in the work of the SDS for years, and, in general, is not politically active in the party, and, therefore, it is understandable that we no longer consider him a member," the unnamed source said.


These wishy-washy attempts to disown Karadzic are not only aimed at the international audience. The SDS leadership is trying to prevent a split within its own ranks. A majority of young party officials and activists, the post-war generation, see Karadzic as a liability. They want to renounce his legacy and change the party name.


One reform-minded official told IWPR that he had information which indicated that unless the SDS clearly disavowed Karadzic "Hague arrests of some senior party officials could be expected".


Karadzic appears more hemmed in now than at any time since he went into hiding in 1996.


Like Milosevic, he has become a burden, not only to his country, but to his own political party and one-time allies. His arrest now appears to hinge on S-For's technical assessment of the risks involved in the operation.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor