14th Apr 2021


They got him!

  • "With the Hague due to release a negative report on Serbia's cooperation efforts in June, the timing of the arrest is almost too good to be true" (Photo: Bamshad Houshyani)

After almost sixteen years on the run, Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladić has been finally apprehended by Serbian security forces. The arrest took place in the quiet northern Serbian village of Lazarevo. Serbian President Boris Tadić has said that the process to extradite General Mladić to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague is under way.

Following the arrest of Radovan Karadzić in 2008, Mladić had become the most prominent Bosnian war crimes suspect at large. He faces international war crimes charges, including the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. Mladić's arrest is said to clear the way for Serbia's European Union bid.

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It is likely that Mladić spent all this time hidden in Serbia with the assistance of parts of the Serbian military intelligence community. For a long time General Mladić relied on the protection of the Milošević regime. Little changed with Slobodan Milošević's ousting in 2000. Under Vojislav Koštunica, the last President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (2000-2003) and later Prime Minister of Serbia (2004-2008), the search for the general continued in theory, but was seemingly half-hearted at best.

The ICTY's constant negative reporting on Serbian efforts to capture the general was often balanced by European states interests in normalising relations with Serbia and settling Kosovo's status question. In 2006, Serbia became a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace and in 2008 signed a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU without meeting any demands.

After the 2008 parliamentary and presidential elections in Serbia, a pro-European government was installed that gave President Tadić the opportunity to give new impetus to the hunt for Karadzić and Mladić.

Mladić's arrest will hopefully give some relief to the relatives of the many victims of the 1995 Srebrenica ethnic cleansing and other atrocities committed in Bosnia. Veterans of the United Nations peacekeeping forces active in Yugoslavia at the time might also find some comfort after so many years. However, this has been most beneficial for Serbia and its position in the international community.

Of course, European leaders have all applauded the news. And President Tadić was quick to state in a press conference that "a difficult period of our history is over and Serbia's reputation is no longer tarnished". Although the ICTY still has one outstanding warrant against Goran Hadžić, accused of the ethnic cleansing of Croats in Krajina province at the beginning of the 1990s civil war, it is unlikely that the international community will cling to conditions over his capture.

With ICTY Prosecutor Serge Brammertz due to release a negative report on Serbia's cooperation efforts in June, the timing of the arrest is almost too good to be true. The report would have seriously damaged Serbia's EU bid. Now, Europe is probably eager to support Boris Tadić for a second term in Serbia's 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections. And what better gift than to grant Serbia EU candidate status? Also, the Netherlands, which has been most fierce in demanding that Serbia keep to its obligation to deliver, is likely to stop further blocking EU-Serbia negotiations.

Over the last twenty years Serbia has fought four wars – as Yugoslavia against Slovenia, Croatia and in Bosnia, as well as the last war in Kosovo. The country lost its frontrunner role with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the split with Montenegro in 2006 and the loss of Kosovo. Only the latter issue remains unresolved and it will take a long time and several new talks to reach a common agreement. But despite Serbia's uphill battle over Kosovo's independence which has been recognised by many countries, a reasonably stable modus operandi for daily coexistence is slowly emerging.

The Serbian population has gone through hardship and frustration and has often been regarded as the wrongdoers by the international community. But many Serbs have turned the page and now seek integration with Europe and normal ties with the country's neighbours. Hopefully the arrest of Mladić is the last page of this sad history and Serbia can move on.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Madrid-based think-tank FRIDE.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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