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

Serbia Acts on Mladic Demand

Four new indictments are served by The Hague as pressure grows for the capture of the number one war crimes suspect.
By Gordana Igric

The Serbian authorities have launched a fresh search for the fugitive war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic - two days after being served with four potentially explosive new indictments by the Hague tribunal.

Growing international pressure to cooperate with the war crimes court and capture Mladic - the former Bosnian Serb army chief charged with genocide for his alleged part in the Srebrenica massacre - has prompted the government to take some action.

On October 22, police arrived at Blagoja Parovica Street in the Belgrade suburb of Golf, where Mladic once lived, and also visited the nearby town of Mostanica, which is home to his sister. Patrols were also carried out along the Drina river, which borders Bosnia. Mladic was nowhere to be found.

The fruitless search came after the tribunal and the international community sent its strongest message yet that the Serbian government is running out of time over the Mladic issue.

On October 20, The Hague unsealed four new indictments against Serbian generals - two of them serving officers - for alleged atrocities committed during the war in Kosovo.

They are the current head of the Serbian interior ministry's public security department, Sreten Lukic; his predecessor Vlastimir Djordjevic; former army chief of staff Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic, ex-commander of the army's Pristina Corps.

Serbian prime minister Zoran Zivkovic has ruled out any immediate arrest or extradition of the four, saying it is not a priority for the government.

After the indictments were served, the United States' ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, Pierre Richard Prosper, hinted that Mladic's immediate extradition could result in the four new indictees being tried before a Serbian court - which is exactly what Belgrade wants.

However, The Hague immediately rejected the possibility of such a trade.

The apparent contradiction has led to a guessing game in the Serbian media, with many commentators speculating that Prosper's apparent offer could carry more political weight than the stance presented by the Tribunal - and may persuade the government to do something about the Mladic problem swiftly in order to keep Lukic in Belgrade.

"We are now facing an absurd situation. If Lukic wants to be tried at home, he has to arrest Mladic immediately," said one commentator, who did not want to be named.

The indictments have come at a critical time for the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition, which has been buffeted by a series of crises in recent months and is currently facing a vote of no confidence in parliament.

Political analyst Bratislav Grubacic told IWPR that the indictments were damaging for the already shaky government. "The timing is difficult for the government, which will not probably survive for long now," he said.

"Mladic is at the heart of all Serbia's problems. If the regime had the courage to deliver him, some agreement over these new indictments could have been reached. As it is, I expect more names to be added if they don't arrest him quickly."

Grubacic believes that even if the current government does not extradite the general, the next one will have to, adding, "The international community agrees that [former Bosnian Serb president Radovan] Karadzic and Mladic are as high a priority for Serbia as [indicted general] Ante Gotovina is for Croatia. There is no way out."

One of the four indictments is especially embarrassing for the authorities. Lukic is not only the head of public security in the interior minister but also serves as deputy minister - and it was his job to arrest and extradite Mladic to The Hague.

Interior minister Dusan Mihajlovic has described Lukic as his "right-hand man" in carrying out police reforms, and as the "hero" of Operation Sabre, the anti-organised crime round-up launched in the wake of the assassination of prime minister Zoran Djindjic.

Both the opposition and the interior ministry have come out strongly in support of Lukic. Dragan Markovic of the Party of Serbian Unity has called on the ministry to "stage a coup d'etat and save Serbia".

Police plan to hold a protest on Friday, October 24 in support of Lukic, saying, "indicting people who performed their duty during the war according to the law and service regulations is unacceptable".

But analysts agree that the international community is now sick of the cat-and-mouse game played out over Mladic's whereabouts for the past three years.

Tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has been fighting a long-running battle with the Serbian authorities over the arrest of fugitive war crimes suspects. She has strong European Union and United States backing, but her insistence that the government knows where the suspects are hiding has always been strongly denied by Belgrade.

Prime minister Zivkovic and several members of his cabinet have asked Del Ponte to supply them "with information on General Mladic's exact location, if she knows that he is in Serbia".

The bad feeling between Belgrade and The Hague was exacerbated earlier this month during Del Ponte's most recent visit, when Zivkovic refused to accept four sealed indictments from her.

That refusal appears to have convinced Del Ponte that further pressure was required, and on October 10, she gave the UN Security Council a negative assessment of Serbia-Montenegro's cooperation with the tribunal so far.

At the same time, pressure is coming from other centres of power. The US Senate is considering a bill that will place one condition on any further financial assistance to the country - the arrest and extradition of Ratko Mladic. And the deadline will be probably the March 31.

The capture of Mladic is also a prerequisite for Serbia-Montenegro's integration into NATO's Partnership for Peace programme. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson has said that he would personally encourage their admission by the end of year - as long as Mladic is delivered to the tribunal.

Military analysts and IWPR sources in the army and the police agree that, following international pressure, the authorities have prepared the ground for Mladic's arrest. According to an IWPR source close to the army, Mladic's position has radically changed over the past six months.

Army reforms have weeded out officers close to Mladic, and cut off his ties with the counter-intelligence service, KOS, on which he previously relied. His security is believed to be down to a handful of men, and it is thought that funding for his fugitive lifestyle has all but dried up.

One of the most significant events took place in April 2003, when Defence Minister Boris Tadic disbanded the Serbia-Montenegro Army's Commission for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, which was believed to have supplied Mladic with information.

Military analyst Aleksandar Radic told IWPR, "The reforms have created the conditions for Mladic's extradition, as he no longer has access to important information about what was going on in the state leadership."

But, despite these technical preparations, the 16 parties in the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition have proved incapable of taking the political decision to extradite him.

Many observers of the current fractured political scene wonder whether a new government would be able to succeed where DOS has failed.

But Ljubisa Sekulic, a member of the Forum for International Relations, thinks no government would be able to resist an American ultimatum, "Mladic has to be extradited - either by this government, or by a new one, which will face even greater pressure to prove that it is dedicated to reform."

Gordana Igric is Balkans project manager, Milanka Saponja Hadzic is a regular IWPR contributor.