Serbia’s Heart of Darkness

Standpoint’s Mole believes the arrest of Radovan Karadzic could prove explosive for his country

Balkans Eastern Europe EU Europe History Justice The Mole

The TV broadcast of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s first appearance before the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on July 31 was somewhat surreal. Here was a man who, more than any other, represented the human face of the Serbian mass-murder campaign in the Bosnian war during the 1990s and who, arrogant and flamboyant, was ubiquitous on Western TV screens, but who then vanished from sight for 13 years. In the meantime, the Hague tribunal – whose first prominent indictee he was along with his military counterpart, General Ratko Mladic – has slowly lumbered forward, prosecuting former-Yugoslav war criminals, with somewhat mixed results.

At a panel discussion in London that coincided with Karadzic’s appearance, Sir Geoffrey Nice, the chief prosecutor at the Milo­sevic trial, pointed out that – contrary to its reputation – the trial of Milosevic was not slow or inefficient. It doubled in duration from two years to four, not because it was badly organised, but because of Milosevic’s long periods of absence due to sickness.

Nice also argued that, while some observers lamented the way Milosevic turned the trial into a circus with his contemptuous behaviour and political speeches, it was actually the right of the accused to behave in this way, and from the point of view of the prosecution, it made its job easier than it would have been had Milosevic been represented by a competent, professional lawyer. For all the Christ-like adulation bestowed upon him by his followers on account of his histrionics at The Hague, Milosevic was saved from conviction only by his untimely death. Those with knowledge of the case generally feel that Karadzic will be easier to prosecute than Milosevic, given his more overt involvement in Serb war crimes in Bosnia.

So far, Karadzic appears quieter and more respectful of the tribunal than either Milosevic or the loudmouthed Serbian far-Right leader Vojislav Seselj. His excuse for his long evasion of justice was that he had been promised by US diplomat Richard Holbrooke that he would not have to face the tribunal if he quietly stepped down from power and removed himself from public life: “Mr Holbrooke undertook on behalf of the USA that I would not be tried before this tribunal.” Indeed, Karadzic claimed that his exile was enforced by a US death threat aimed at keeping him quiet: “I was in danger of being liquidated because I had made a commitment.” Holbrooke, for his part, denies claims that he made a deal with Karadzic to save him from the tribunal.Karadzic’s arrest is significant not just from the standpoint of justice, but for what it reveals about the way Serbia is going, and for what it may reveal about Serbia’s past. One Belgrade human rights activist told me: “Karadzic’s arrest is even more important then Milosevic’s arrest. He is directly related to the epicentre of the evil – Cosic and co.” The reference is to Dobrica Cosic, grand­father of contemporary Serbian nationalism and architect of the Serbian-nationalist revival of the 1980s that culminated in the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Indeed, whereas Milosevic was an opportunistic Communist-apparatchik-turned-nationalist, Karadzic was an anti-Communist Serb nationalist of the old school. This made him a kindred spirit of Vojislav Kostunica, who recently stood down as Serbian prime minister after having dominated Serbian politics since the fall of Milosevic in 2000.

A hard-line ideological nationalist, Kostunica sympathised with Karadzic at multiple levels and sheltered him from arrest despite the cost to Serbia’s international standing. The new Serbian government under Mirko Cvetkovic is, by contrast, keen to mend its fences with the West; for all the stories that Karadzic could not be found, the Serbian security forces found him quickly enough when the government wanted them to.

The readiness of Kostunica and other Serbian nationalists to shield Karadzic was not simply a matter of ideological sympathy. The Bosnian Serb leadership under Karadzic and Mladic formed one of the principal links, during the first half of the 1990s, between Milosevic’s regime in Serbia and the bloodshed that was taking place in Bosnia. Consequently, Karadzic and Mladic are uniquely placed to spill the beans about Serbia’s responsibility for the Bosnia war and its complicity in Bosnian war crimes. This could even potentially jeopardise Serbia’s acquittal last year of genocide by the International Court of Justice.

In this respect, Karadzic may be a less significant figure than the still-fugitive Ratko Mladic. As a military figure, allegedly on the Yugoslav army’s payroll right up to the end of the Bosnian war, Mladic would know exactly the nature, extent and details of the Yugoslav army’s involvement in the Sreb­renica massacre. Momcilo Perisic, Yugoslav army chief of staff at the time of Srebrenica, is awaiting trial at The Hague for his involvement in war crimes, including the Srebrenica massacre. Mladic co-­operated with Perisic at the time of the massacre, but the degree of this co-­operation is disputed. According to a Serbian journalist and anti-nationalist activist I spoke to, it is this – the exceptionally sensitive nature of what Mladic knows and what he could reveal – that explains the lengths to which Serbia has gone, and the high price it has paid, to avoid handing him over to The Hague.Even the present Serbian government, which would clearly like to break with the obstructionist, anti-Western and self-­defeating policies of its predecessor, may find Mladic more difficult to deliver than Karad­zic: he is the army’s man, and undoubtedly under its protection. Still, the anti-Western nationalists – embodied above all in the hardline Serbian Radical Party, which has shrilly denounced the arrest and deportation of Karadzic – are a declining force in Serbia, whose eventual EU membership looks more assured than ever.

If the signals from Serbia are largely positive, those from Bosnia reflect the mixed reception that the Karadzic arrest has received from Bosnia’s different entities. The parliament in Bosnia’s Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) suspended sessions last week in protest at what Mladen Bosic, the leader of the Serb Democratic Party (formerly led by Karadzic), described as an “orgy” of celebrations by politicians in the Bosnian Federation over Karadzic’s arrest. Bosic claimed that Karadzic’s trial would be “a trial against the whole of Republika Srpska”.

Karadzic himself has warned in the past that “my arrest will mean the end of the Bosnian Serb republic”. Indeed, some Bosniak (Muslim) politicians, most notably Bosnian President Haris Silajdzic, have hinted that Karadzic’s arrest should be followed up by the abolition of Republika Srpska: “Karadzic is arrested, but his project is not. It is alive and thriving,” he said. “The international community has a duty to erase the effects of genocide in Bosnia, not just to arrest ­Karadzic.”

Milorad Dodik, the Prime Minister of the Bosnian Serbs, has responded that Republika Srpska as a whole is not responsible for Karadzic’s crimes. Just as Bosnian politicians are raising voices for the abolition of Republika Srpska, so Dodik has been quietly laying the groundwork for Republika Srpska’s eventual secession, leading Paddy Ashdown, former High Representative for Bosnia, to warn: “The division of Bosnia that was his [Karad­zic’s] dream is now more likely than at any time since he became a fugitive.” Karadzic’s trial could prove explosive at any number of levels.