Today the world, or at least the part that cares more about the Balkans and/or human rights than about Cheryl Cole’s downfall, was stunned by the capture of Ratko Mladic (alias: Milorad Komadic) near Zrenjanin in northern Serbia, first reported by the Croatian press. The news made many happy, relieved or vindicated, as a man responsible for brutal killing of over 8000 men and boys in Srebrenica in July of 1995 and sniping of citizens of Sarajevo, was brought to justice. But the timing and the place of arrest, during which Mladic was neither resisting, nor disguised , did raise uncomfortable questions why this was not done sooner and whether Serbia really needed (yet another) slap on the wrist from Serge Brammertz and the EU to realise that Mladic should be caught and tried in the Hague for all the monstrosities for which he was undoubtedly responsible . So why did it take almost 16 years, 10 of which sans Milosevic, to bid farewell to Mladic?
It is clear that the answer to this question will never be given in full, but there seem to be three reasons in increasing order of importance: operational issues, Mladic’s probable backing from important interest groups who were only recently weakened and, finally, the high political cost of the move (considering that around 51% of Serbs would not extradite Mladic and about 40% consider him a hero). The operational issues are clear, and were cited by all Serbian governments as key. It would always be difficult to find an ex-general who had a group of loyalists spanning three mountainous and heavily-wooded countries with porous borders. Mladic is still popular with many Bosnian Serbs, especially those who credit him for saving their lives from Bosniak and Croatian forces. Some of them had the monetary and political wherewithal to keep him away from the arms of justice. Still, the capture of undisguised and ill Mladic about 100km from Belgrade living close to his extended family does raise eyebrows how much of his evasion was due to operational difficulties. Furthermore, a functioning and determined state with loyal security services should be expected to be able to break any support network and at least not have the guy on its territory (cue Pakistan).
But from October 2000 to (at least) the spring of 2008, Serbian governments first had problems with loyalty and then with determination. It is important to realise that for some years after Milosevic Serbia was a country in which an elite police unit with mafia links first protested in full gear to have “their man” appointed head of the state intelligence agency and then went on to assassinate the only truly reformist prime minister. The bargains that were struck to ensure Milosevic’s removal were such that some of the worst people of the former regime were either allowed to keep their privileges or at least were not to be bothered. Kostunica’s governments were often staffed by those people (as many a corruption case confirmed) and partly due to ideology and partly due to simple interests were not interested in handing Karadzic (who happily worked as a faith healer) and Mladic. Mladic and Karadzic were valuable bargaining chips both externally (presumably to be fed if EU got too angry) and internally (as they invariably stirred emotions) and were not to be wasted. Still Kostunica overplayed his cards with Kosovo, and was removed in the elections of 2008, the result of tipped by a fortuitously timed investment from FIAT.
The new DS-led government demonstrated Kostunica’s unwillingness to put the duo behind bars, when Karadzic was arrested on a bus in Belgrade. Mladic, however was probably a tougher catch as he was both more skilled in evading the authorities but also much more likely to dent ratings. The latter of which became increasingly important for a government elected on a pro-European and economic platform when 6% GDP growth turned to an economic free-fall and chances of joining the EU any time soon vanished due to the spectre of Kosovo and the EU qualms about letting new countries join the club. Even if the real reason why Mladic was caught now was his ability to dodge spooks, it is still a fact that his arrest required vast amounts of political capital. In the past few years political capital was trickling away due to the impasse on the Kosovo front and the remainder was used to enable the often botched legal reforms, enactment of the anti-discrimination laws and trying to keep people away from strikes during the crisis. Probably the dismal arithmetic also included the fact that no matter what Serbia does the EU will be too busy with its own problems and/or preoccupied by Serbian stance on Kosovo to throw a carrot large enough to warrant the effort of getting Mladic into the comfy cells of the Hague. So what changed in the past few days? Maybe the fact that Croatia was given a tentative green light to join the EU in 2013 or maybe the realization that Brammertz’s negative report would be a death knell to he ambition of Serbia having the candidate status by the end of this governments reign in May 2012.
In any case, Mladic should have been caught before, as that would have been the just thing to do. Politics, being ridden with trade-offs as it is, did not help the reformists in Serbia in doing this. More obvious efforts would have been better and even warranted by Mladic’s crimes, but with the good thing done it is a great day for Serbia to focus on the future, having unburdened itself of a painful relic of the past. It is also a great time for a carrot to stifle the potentially threatening cries of the majority that is feeling betrayed by the government and the EU – not because of Mladic’s capture, but because of the lack of perspective.