Serbia Rejoins Mainstream Europe?

Radovan Karadzic – one of the world’s most wanted war criminals – was arrested yesterday by the Serb authorities. It is a big triumph for international justice, but the legal process is only beginning. 

Jonathan Eyal
Director, International Security Studies

His extradition to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague – and his subsequent trial for his deeds during the 1990s – are likely to prove long-drawn affairs. The tribunal works very slowly and not always efficiently: Slobodan Milosevic, the old Serb dictator, died of natural causes before the tribunal could reach its verdict. And Karadzic is a worthy successor to Milosevic: like the Serb president, he is loquacious and more than able to string things along, accusing others of the crimes in Bosnia while embroiling the court in various technical and often irrelevant disputes.

But, to a large extent, Karadzic’s ultimate fate matters little; what is important is that, by arresting him, the current Serb government has shown that it is prepared to take domestic political risks in order to rejoin mainstream Europe. So, seen from this perspective, what happened in Belgrade on Monday is potentially very significant.

Western intelligence knew all along that Karadzic – who was indicted in July 1995 for his alleged role in both the massacre of nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica that year and the three-year siege of Sarajevo – was hiding in the Serb-controlled territories of Bosnia and, subsequently, in Serbia proper. However, successive Serbian governments denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, and frequently ignored Western tip-offs. The Serb protestations of ignorance were never very persuasive, but there was little the West could do.

The current Serb government claims that Karadzic’s arrest was just a lucky break: apparently he was picked up when he tried to move from one hiding place to the other, heavily disguised as a ‘practitioner of alternative medicine’, an apparition which looked like a cross between a madman and an Orthodox priest, an alias which, supposedly, was so convincing that it allowed him to roam free for more than a decade.

Perhaps, but the real explanation for his arrest may be more humdrum: he was apprehended because the current leaders in Belgrade had finally decided that it was in their country’s interest to do so. The evidence for this is fairly clear. Last week, security forces raided the Sarajevo apartment of Ljiljana Karadzic, his wife. They seized documents and materials which provided clues for their search. And, in recent weeks, the homes of other known Karadzic supporters were also raided. All these actions could have been taken years ago, but they only took place now because the political calculations in Serbia have changed.

Previous Serb governments were reluctant to hand over alleged war criminals for a variety of reasons:

• The arrest and extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader, ended in the assassination of the Serb prime minister who was responsible for this act of international justice. Every subsequent Serb politician worried that repeating this experience would result in further political assassinations

• Radovan Karadzic and his acolytes were clearly shielded by the Serb military and security services; without their at least tacit support it is inconceivable that they could have escaped justice for so long. But a string of weak Serb governments felt unable to confront the military and the security services head-on; ignoring the problem seemed a better cause

• The international war crimes tribunal in The Hague is not particularly popular in Serbia, where it is seen as an instrument of vengeance, rather than justice. So, handing over further suspects entailed great political risks, without many political advantages

• Finally, as Serb politicians frequently pointed out in their private meetings with Western diplomats, there was no guarantee that, even if they handed over Karadzic and other suspects to the Tribunal, there would not be another round of indictments, in a process which never seemed to stop. The Tribunal’s public prosecutor has now lost the ability to issue further indictments, but Serb politicians have continued to treat it with suspicion.

The key to the dramatic shift in Belgrade’s calculations came with the formation last month of a pro-European government. The new cabinet was initially described as an uncomfortable alliance between the Democratic Party of reformist President Boris Tadic and the old Socialists, who were once led by Slobodan Milosevic, the late dictator. But it has proven itself to be a reformed organisation which looks west to Europe rather than east to Moscow for inspiration. And, perhaps precisely because it had something to prove, it was also prepared to arrest Karadzic.

The government’s rapid replacement – announced only last week – of Rade Bulatovic as the head of Serbian Intelligence with Sasha Vukadinovic, a reformer who made his name fighting local mafia gangs, was a clear indication of the new trend and was almost certainly connected with the decision to arrest Karadzic. The Serb government also appears to have timed the arrest just before a meeting of EU foreign ministers due to discuss closer relations with Belgrade. So, the arrest of the alleged war criminal was clearly intended to send a message.

However, European politicians now rushing to claim that the change of heart in Belgrade is an indication that the West’s traditional policy in the Balkans has produced results are still wrong. Serbia’s isolation – maintained by the West for more than a decade – led to a dead end. What has finally produced a favourable outcome was the decision taken by the European Union recently to offer Serbia concrete co-operation. In short, it was not the stick of isolation, but the carrot of integration which ultimately moved things along.

Nevertheless, the drama is far from over. General Ratko Mladic, who is also sought for trial in The Hague on genocide charges, is still at large. So is Goran Hadzic, another Croatian Serb military leader wanted for atrocities in the Croatian city of Vukovar. There may be three reasons for the fact that these ‘high value targets’ are still evading arrest. The first, and most prosaic, may be that the hunt against them is in progress, and that results may be announced soon. The second interpretation is that, having delivered one of the alleged war criminals, the Serb government is now prepared to wait and see what the response from the rest of Europe may be: if Serbia gains serious diplomatic advantage, then other arrests may follow. But the third – and most likely – possibility is that the Serb government is still a bit weary about delivering Mladic and Hadzic. Both of them are close to the military in Serbia, and able to implicate a lot of senior Serb officers, some of whom may still occupy positions of responsibility. So, while the government found it expedient to get rid of Karadzic (after all, just a former politician), it still baulks at apprehending top military brass. The government will probably wait to see how big the nationalist backlash is before moving against other alleged war criminals.

Either way, the outcome is overwhelmingly good. Serbia is re-acquiring its rightful place in Europe, as a civilised nation which shares the continent’s aspirations, rather than just a refuge for a lot of unsavoury individuals. And Europe will have to respond, this time with far more carrots than sticks.



The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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