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Is Mladic Heading for The Hague?

Developments in Serbia show some interesting parallels with events leading up to the capture of Croatian general Ante Gotovina.
By Goran Jungvirth
If one little clue had been made public, he would have been gone,” said Anton Nikiforov, special advisor to the Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte.

Nikiforov is referring to the final months before General Ante Gotovina, the most wanted Croatian war crimes suspect, was arrested in a luxury hotel in the Canary Islands in December after four years on the run.

According to Nikiforov, “only three or four people” in Zagreb and The Hague knew about the information that would eventually lead to Gotovina’s capture.

“It’s amazing it never leaked,” he said in an interview with IWPR.

For senior officials at the Hague tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the Gotovina situation can be compared with the current pressure on Belgrade to produce former Bosnian Serb military chief General Ratko Mladic only because in both cases, they saw a need to keep such matters out of the limelight, and away from public pressure.

However, despite efforts to keep quiet about sensitive developments relating to the capture of individuals indicted by the tribunal, there is currently a slew of reports emanating from Belgrade, Brussels and The Hague about what may or may not be happening with Mladic.

While such speculation is nothing new, recent events do bear comparison with the events leading up to Gotovina’s detention.

Just as Croatia did in the months leading up to Gotovina’s capture, Belgrade now appears to have nominated a single individual to channel information to The Hague about developments in the Mladic case.

And the combination of carrot and stick which the European Union is currently applying to Serbia closely shadows the way it dealt with Zagreb last year before Gotovina was caught.

As an October 3 deadline approached for the EU to decide whether to give Croatia the green light for further membership talks, Del Ponte arrived in Zagreb to ratchet up the pressure on the Gotovina issue. With just days to go before the Brussels decision, she met senior Croatian officials and briefed the media, re-stating her disappointment that the fugitive general was not yet in The Hague.

While many interpreted this as straightforward criticism at the time, it has since transpired that the move was effectively a bluff. Local media have since reported that Del Ponte cancelled a planned meeting that afternoon and instead slipped away for a private meeting with Croatia’s chief prosecutor Mladen Bajic, Zagreb’s designated point man with the tribunal.

A few days later, Del Ponte told EU foreign ministers that over the course of 2005, Croatia had fixed some of the problems that plagued its intelligence agencies, and that the leaking of sensitive information had now stopped.

“Reports have shown Croatian efforts are focused and coordinated,” she said.

Croatia’s progress towards EU membership was thus assured.

In the weeks that followed, leading up to the actual arrest of Gotovina on December 8, only a tiny circle of Croatian officials were kept in the loop on, and they in turn kept The Hague informed.

Like Croatia, Serbia views European integration as central to its foreign policy. Daniel Sunter of the Belgrade think-tank the Euro-Atlantic Initiative told IWPR, “The EU is more popular [among Serbs] than any domestic institutions.”

At the end of March, Del Ponte visited Belgrade, once again in advance of a crucial EU decision on whether to continue with the negotiations that will decide whether Serbia continues its progress towards accession. Immediately following her visit, the chief prosecutor’s stopped off in Brussels for a meeting with the European official in charge of relations with Serbia, Olli Rehn.

As happened with Croatia last year, the report she delivered on Belgrade was surprisingly positive.

According to Nikiforov, Del Ponte informed Rehn that she had received “clear assurances” from Serbia and Montenegro prime minister Vojislav Kostunica that Mladic would be delivered by the end of April. Kostunica subsequently made the same assurances to Rehn in person.

On April 5, Serbia’s next round of negotiations with the EU went ahead as planned.

Serbian political heavyweights have since made it clear that they believe Mladic will soon be in custody.

“I'm not a pessimist, and I believe Kostunica will try to fulfil the promise that was given,” Goran Svilanovic, an official of the South-Eastern European Stability Pact, told the Podgorica daily Republika.

Nikiforov has also confirmed that the Hague tribunal has succeeded in establishing a single point of contact with Belgrade with whom they can discuss developments on the Mladic case. The spokesman declined to say who this is, but sources in Belgrade suggest that it may be the country’s chief prosecutor for war crimes, Vladimir Vukcevic.

Vukcevic is said to have “special authority” to obtain information from Serbian security sources on efforts to take Mladic into custody, and to play a coordinating role.

The problems facing Vukcevic are considerable. A report delivered to Serbia and Montenegro’s Supreme Defence Council in February confirmed that Mladic had been under the protection of members of the military as late as June 2002. Defence Minister Zoran Stankovic said more than 50 individuals said to have helped the fugitive general escape justice would be investigated.

A series of Mladic’s former associates have been arrested and questioned in recent months.

Serbian foreign minister Vuk Draskovic told the state television channel RTS this week that a key issue is whether Mladic has still allies within government who are prepared to protect him. “It only takes one member of the team searching for Mladic to be in touch with him for the arrest action to be unsuccessful,” he pointed out.

There have recently been clear signs that an official effort is under way to soften up the public in anticipation of Mladic’s arrest, with politicians issuing constant reminders of the importance his detention has for the country’s future.

This comes in addition to efforts by Kostunica’s government over the last year and a half to “build up confidence” in the Hague tribunal, says Sunter, including a fairly successful new policy of encouraging senior officers to give themselves up.

The unexpected death of former president Slobodan Milosevic in tribunal custody in early March was a setback for such efforts.

But many observers see the next few weeks as Belgrade’s last chance to redeem itself.

According to Sunter, so many promises have been made in recent years that the international community will remain sceptical until Mladic is actually handed over.

The director of the Belgrade Forum for Ethnic Relations, Dusan Janjic, told the Glas Javnosti newspaper that the government is well aware that “if it lies to Europe and The Hague this time too, we’ll get first diplomatic and later broader sanctions”.

If and when Mladic does appear in The Hague, his trial will be one of the most significant yet to take place there. Amongst the crimes listed on the indictment against him are the shelling of civilian targets in Sarajevo and the murder of thousands of Muslim prisoners following the fall of the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995.

In the meantime, Nikiforov took advantage of a press conference at the tribunal this week to issue a plea to the media “to let them finish the job without public pressure”.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Janet Anderson is the director of IWPR’s International Justice Programme in The Hague.

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