What Ratko Mladić’s Arrest Means for Serbia

AP Photo/Oleg Stjepanovic
By Sara Sudetic

"Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson”. Judge Fouad Riad described these heinous acts at General Ratko Mladić’s indictment in absentia just a couple of months following the Srebrenica genocide, the greatest act of violence in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Richard Goldstone, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the time, predicted the dawning of a very different world, in which “impunity had really been withdrawn from war criminals”.

Almost sixteen years later, this prediction was proven correct. On 26 May, the Serbian President Boris Tadić announced the capture of Mladić, the most senior officer of the Army of Republika Srpska, in the small village of Lazarevo, near the Serbian border with Romania. He described this arrest as the end of “one chapter of our recent history, that will bring us one step closer to full reconciliation of the region”. Indeed, there were many doubts that Serbia would ever arrest the man who is still seen by many as a national hero, and who, until 2001, was frequently spotted dining in expensive restaurants, visiting his daughter’s grave and appearing at football matches in Belgrade. This arrest also brings the ICTY closer to successfully completing its mandate, with Goran Hađžićnow remaining the sole fugitive out of a total of 161 indictees.

On Friday, a Belgrade judge declared Mladić liable to be extradited to The Hague, where he will face a total of 15 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws and customs of war. Much like his political counterpart Radovan Karađžić, he stands accused of widespread, systematic attacks against Bosnian Muslims and other non-Serb civilian populations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These include the protracted shelling and sniping of Sarajevo during the forty-four month-long siege of the city, and the orchestration of the Srebrenica genocide, resulting in the deaths of more than 8,700 Bosnian Muslims. The latter also had reverberating political effects, ensuing in the collapse of the Dutch Cabinet of Willem Kok in 2002, regarding the possible responsibility of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion assigned to protect the UN safe-haven and its population.

The news of Mladić’s arrest has prompted many different reactions locally, regionally and globally.

In Serbia, the right-wing ultranationalist group 1389, named after the date of the battle of Kosovo which remains a pillar of Serbian nationalism to this day, dubbed the arrest a “national treason”. The hard-line Serbian Radical Party declared this to be “one of the hardest moments in Serbian history”, calling for the resignation of Boris Tadićas well as his government’s dismissal on the grounds that this action is a “brutal violation of the constitution”. This political discontent hints that there is a high likelihood that the violent demonstrations that exploded in the streets of Belgrade following the arrest of Radovan Karađžićin 2008 will be repeated in the upcoming days, denoting a clear political opposition within Serbia. Richard Dicker, the director of the International Justice Programme of Human Rights Watch has emphasised the courage of the Serbian government “in the face of fierce opposition by hardliners”, a view that was echoed throughout  international public opinion.

Despite jubilant headlines throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, many questions have been put forward by its population, especially concerning the sincerity of the Serbian government’s search for Mladić. Indeed, many Bosnians remain greatly disappointed that the general enjoyed freedom and a relatively comfortable, albeit hidden, life for so long after his indictment by the ICTY. The former Bosnian president Ejup Ganićhas even accused Serbian authorities of timing his arrest to get a “ticket for Europe”, emphasising his perception that Mladić’s whereabouts and movements were always well-known.

Coincidently, the rather negative report of the prosecutor of the ICTY, Serge Brammertz, concerning the cooperation of Serbia with the tribunal was leaked in the days preceding the arrest, stating that “Serbia’s failure undermines its credibility and the strength of its stated commitment to fully cooperate with the tribunal”. Also, the arrest occurred only one week after the visit to the region of the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, concerning the bleak relations between Serbia and the breakaway province of Kosovo.

Regardless of the political calculations involving the arrest itself, the EU is now under overwhelming pressure to recompense Belgrade. With Mladić’s arrest, a significant barrier to Serbian membership is now removed. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy, like many other European heads of state, has emphasised that Mladić’s capture is “one more step towards Serbia’s integration one day in the EU”. The Serbian Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, Božidar Djelićhas announced that Serbia expects to get not only the candidate status, but a date for starting negotiations on its membership before the end of 2011.

However, the issue of Kosovo is still a general theme in Serbian relations with the EU and the world. But a day after Mladić’s arrest, Boris Tadićstood by his decision to boycott a major summit meeting of central and eastern European leaders that took place in Warsaw, because of the presence at the meeting of the president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga. This issue, combined with a general reluctance of the EU to enlarge its borders due to the economic crises many European countries are experiencing, hints that the Serbian path to EU membership will be long and tedious.

This is dangerous for the future of Tadić’s pro-European coalition. The independent news channel B92, which famously served as a rally for the opposition to Slobodan Miloševićin the 1990s, has put forward the idea that Mladić’s arrest will not only ease Serbia into the EU, but will attract foreign investment and revenue. They have estimated that every year Mladićwas at large cost Serbia between €10 and 12 million in terms of loss of revenues, investment and the total cost of his search. This is something many Serbs are hoping for: further economic integration into the EU, bringing with it employment opportunities, foreign investment, a better quality of life and security.

This is a predominant condition for the normalisation of Serbian politics. Boris Tadić and his coalition have gone out on a political limb in delivering Mladić to The Hague tribunal. If Serbia does not see a clear promise for a better economic future and social integration, the wavering support for the pro-European coalition could just as easily turn against them. 


Sara Sudetic is currently studying War Studies and History at King's College London. She has a passion for international justice and journalism and has interned for the Internationational Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Le Monde. She is particularly interested in the Balkans and the Middle East.


29 May 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Oleg Stjepanovic