Serbia, Karadzic and the Politics of Justice


By Tim Judah
Originally published August 8, 2008

As is now already well known Mr Karadzic, who led the Bosnian Serbs during the Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995, far from taking refuge in a remote corner of Hercegovina or hiding in Orthodox monasteries in Serbia or Montenegro, as was widely believed, was actually living in Belgrade. As he told the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) his precise address was 267 Jurij Gagarin Street. He had, for the last few years, been working as an alternative health guru and selling cures for impotence and other disorders.

All this has provided the Balkans, and indeed much of the rest of the world, with much mirth. Likewise the transformation of the bouffant-hairdoed wartime leader into a bushy-bearded, top-knot wearing Santa lookalike – and back again. And now there is the question of whether the Radovan Karadzic who appeared in court on July 31st, is actually the same Karadzic of old, or whether today’s Karadzic, who again looks like the Mark One version, is still really the Mark Two, spiritual version.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic stands in the courtroom during his initial appearance at the U.N.'s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, Thursday, July 31, 2008. (AP Photo/ Jerry Lampen, Pool)

It was only in May after all, that Karadzic was lecturing at Belgrade’s Healthy Life Festival on the topic of “How to Enhance One’s Own Energies.” And, of course, when he appeared in court he announced, in a line that is likely to go down in Balkan and international legal history, that he would be defending himself apart from help from “an invisible advisor”. One can only infer that Mr Karadzic is referring to the Almighty, whom he would thus have us believe is acting, in his case, not as his ultimate judge, but in the rather more humble position of legal consultant.

Mr Karadzic has until August 29th to enter a plea in answer to his indictments. So for now, we can expect the media circus to move on. As it does, this is a good time to examine in a little more detail, not just the circumstances of Mr Karadzic’s arrest but the all-important political context too.

Europe’s Offer to Serbia

The former Bosnian Serb leader was arrested, according to the Serbian authorities, on July 21st. He denies this though saying that he was detained on the 18th and held unlawfully in an unknown location. This is a significant detail and we shall return to it. However, in truth, this story really begins in the last weeks of April.

In the wake of Kosovo’s declaration of independence on February 17th the Serbian government collapsed. Kosovo, whose population is some 90% ethnic Albanian was, and for Serbia still is, its southern province. An election was called for May 11th. Opinion polls showed that the most likely outcome was a victory for the hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which would then rule in coalition with the party of outgoing prime minister Vojislav Kostunica and the now small Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) led by Ivica Dacic. The SRS was founded by Vojislav Seselj who is now on trial at the ICTY. The SPS is the party of the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic who led his people to war in the 1990s and died during his trial in The Hague on 11 March 2003.


Opinion polls showed that the most likely outcome was a victory for the hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which would then rule in coalition with the party of outgoing prime minister Vojislav Kostunica and the now small Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) led by Ivica Dacic.


Extremely worried by the possibility of this anti-European and pro-Russian coalition coming to power, European Union foreign ministers decided to try and boost the chances of the pro-European Democratic Party (DS) of president Boris Tadic. So, after much argument, and then with much fanfare, Serbia was given, on April 29th, a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) which is the first step towards eventual membership of the EU. At the same time negotiations also began on the difficult issue of visas, which should eventually lead to their abolition for most EU countries for Serbian citizens.

These “bribes” as they have been described by Ljiljana Smajlovic, the editor of the leading Serbian daily Politika, were enough to swing the election for the DS. However it still took some two months of negotiations with Mr Dacic to persuade him to betray the Radicals and Mr Kostunica, not to mention his own voters, and to give his crucial votes in parliament to Mr Tadic and join a DS-led government. Among other rewards for the SPS for joining a cabinet made up of people who had overthrown Mr Milosevic, arrested him and transferred him to the ICTY, was the post of minister of interior for Mr Dacic himself.

A Fundamental Change

With the new government ensconced in power, Vuk Jeremic, the Serbian foreign minister said, to anyone who would listen, that it intended to go after the remaining Hague indictees. Not many took this too seriously, though, since ministers have said it before. However, in a detail that was little emphasized during the Serbian election campaign, the SAA had been frozen by the EU until Serbia was deemed by the ICTY to be cooperating with it.

Although it was not immediately apparent, the EU’s condition for moving forward on European integration and the election results in Serbia combined to produce a fundamental change. Not only was the government now led by people who wanted to finish with the war crimes issue which has dogged Serbia for so many years, but now they were actually about to be able to do something about it. Mr Tadic, who has been president since June 2004, was about to get his hands on the levers of real power in this area: the Serbian intelligence services, known by their initials as BIA. Until July 18th BIA was run by Rade Bulatovic, a man always seen as loyal to Vojislav Kostunica who loathed the tribunal, regarding it like many Serbs, as an anti-Serb kangaroo court.

If Mr Karadzic was indeed arrested on July 21st this would imply that Mr Tadic’s new man at BIA, Sasa Vukadinovic, had just given the green light for the arrest to go ahead, since it is inconceivable that BIA could have found their man in a mere 72 hours. But, if as Mr Karadzic insists, he was actually arrested on the 18th then this suggests that Mr Bulatovic gave Mr Karadzic to Mr Tadic as a leaving present, which is indeed what Mr Dacic has implied. Mr Bulatovic is also believed to have kept valuable intelligence to himself about the extent of talks on a coalition between Mr Tadic and Mr Dacic – and not informed Mr Kostunica. Now, far from retiring into obscurity, Mr Bulatovic has been rewarded with the politically important post of ambassador to Greece.

So it seems more than likely that at least some people in BIA always knew where Mr Karadzic was, or at least have known for sometime, and that as a consequence of the change of government and shifting political loyalties his time was up. Whether this will now lead to the arrest of General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander during the war is another question. If it was up to Mr Tadic the answer would almost certainly be “yes” but to what extent Mladic still has some protection – or is also living a bizarre and unexpected existence remains unclear.

Coming to Terms with the Tribunal

Certainly the government will be encouraged by the muted reactions from the general public, especially in the light of the recent high profile acquittals by the Hague tribunal of Ramush Haradinaj and Nasir Oric. The first, who led Kosovo Albanian guerrillas in 1998 and 1999, was accused of murdering Serbs and others while the latter was accused of killing Serbian civilians while he commanded Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) forces in Srebrenica.Like the rest of the 5.4 million square-mile area at the top of the world this chunk of the U.S. Arctic is


Whatever the merits of these controversial cases few in Serbia view them as anything else but confirmation of what they have always believed, which is that the tribunal is irredeemably anti-Serb.


Whatever the merits of these controversial cases few in Serbia view them as anything else but confirmation of what they have always believed, which is that the tribunal is irredeemably anti-Serb. Whether or not that charge has any justification, it is clear that the tribunal has failed catastrophically in convincing Serbs of the impartiality of its justice.

Nevertheless opinion polls have shown consistently over the last few years, that while most Serbs do not regard Mr Karadzic or General Mladic as guilty, or at least any more guilty than any leading wartime figure amongst Croats, Bosniaks and Kosovo Albanians, they also do not have a passionate objection to their transfer to The Hague. There is a clear understanding that Serbia’s European future and hence their own, is directly related to the fates of these men. Serbs only have to look over the border, or go on holiday in Croatia, to see and understand that once it had in 2005 delivered its last indictee, General Ante Gotovina, a huge hurdle on the road to EU integration was removed. As a consequence Croatia is years ahead of Serbia now on the road to Brussels and, in part as a consequence of that, its people are also several times more prosperous than those of Serbia.

As for the trial itself one can only hope that it will proceed somewhat faster than those that have preceded it. Most interesting will be whether Mr Karadzic expands on what he has already claimed was an American promise that he would never appear before the ICTY. This is an old story but it was given fresh legs in court on July 31st when Mr Karadzic said that the reason he had been hiding for the last 12 years was that he feared for his life. He claimed that in exchange for an agreement to retire from public life Richard Holbrooke promised him he would not be sent to The Hague. “This is a matter of life and death,” he told the court. “If Holbrooke wants me dead and if he has such a long arm, I want to know whether his long arm can reach me here.”

A Political Defence?

If there ever was such a deal, which would of course have no judicial significance, it seems unlikely that Mr Holbrooke, who is a shrewd diplomat, would ever have committed anything to paper and indeed he has denied the story. Whether however, Mr Karadzic inferred something from Mr Holbrooke, who in turn was happy for that inference to be taken, is another story. Still Bosnian Serb officials insist there was indeed a written agreement. Following Mr Karadzic’s arrest Aleksa Buha, the wartime foreign minister of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, said: “I was present when the deal was made in June 1996. Holbrooke personally confirmed this to me, waving a paper with the signed text of Radovan’s decision.”

In contrast to these claims of treachery, the court will also hear from survivors of the Srebrenica massacre in which up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces when the notional “safe area” fell to them in July 1995. Mr Karadzic is charged with genocide by the ICTY for Srebrenica. According to Slobodan Mijatovic, a former member of the Bosnian Serb military police who accompanied General Mladic to one location where prisoners were being held, the military leader told them: “not to worry, adding that their families were taken to safe locations and that they would be able to join them as soon as the transportation means were available…The prisoners then started applauding and shouting ‘cheerio’” They were then shot, in total about 1,000 Bosniaks who had been assembled in the now infamous hangar at Kravica.

So far, while welcoming the arrest of Mr Karadzic the EU has not yet taken a decision to unfreeze the SAA, however it is possible that it will soon permit an interim agreement with Serbia to begin, albeit not ratifying the SAA until General Mladic and the only other outstanding indictee, Croatian Serb Goran Hadzic, are in The Hague. Holland, which has lived through a national trauma over the failure of its troops who were deployed at Srebrenica, albeit in small numbers, to prevent the massacre there, has been amongst the countries taking the toughest of stances on this matter.

Kosovo and International Law

In the meantime, even if Messrs Mladic and Hadzic are arrested and sent to the ICTY now, Serbia is not about to disappear off the radar of international justice and international law. However this time it promises to be a case of poacher turned gamekeeper and the subject at issue is Kosovo. So far some 43 countries have recognised Kosovo’s declaration of
independence including the US and 20 out of 27 EU countries. Russia has not recognised Kosovo, neither have many Muslim countries nor any of the big developing countries including China, India, Brazil and Egypt. Many of them regard Kosovo’s secession as illegal, as it was technically a province of Serbia and not a Yugoslav republic.

The new Serbian government has taken a two pronged approach to Kosovo and the international political manoeuvring about its status. Serbia wants to strike a bargain with the EU over the deployment of the latter’s police and justice mission in Kosovo because it does not want the issue to again become a problem just as the ICTY one might be taken off the agenda. However it also aims to ask the General Assembly of the UN, which will convene on September 16th, to vote to request the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on the legality of Kosovo’s secession. The Serbian government could then tell its people that the question was in the hands of the lawyers and should no longer be an issue for debate within Serbia. However for EU countries which have recognised Kosovo this could be problematic. Indeed one diplomat from a country which regards Kosovo’s secession as illegal says colleagues from countries which have recognised it “are beginning to sweat.”

In the run up to General Assembly Serbian diplomats are lobbying hard for votes on the ICJ issue and, among other things, playing the “non-alignment” card, recalling the strong bonds of friendship which tied Tito’s Yugoslavia with India, Indonesia and so many other countries in that period. On July 31st Ajay Swarup, India’s ambassador to Serbia told Serbian television that his country intended to support Serbia on the ICJ question.

Although Serbia is of course convinced that it would win at the ICJ, there is no guarantee of this and it may be prevailed upon to withdraw this line of attack anyway if, as Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister and most recently the British ambassador to Belgrade have said, that the issue would become a major bone of contention with the EU. What is already clear is that while the arrest of Mr Karadzic is a huge, albeit belated step for Serbia, the tragedy and legacy of the destruction of Yugoslavia will continue to haunt the Serbs and their neighbours for many years to come, both in terms of real lives and international law and justice.

Tim Judah covers the Balkans for The Economist. He is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia and Kosovo: What Everyone Needs to Know.

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