General Ratko Mladic popped open a cork on a bottle of his home made rakija, the local hooch, and poured me out a glass. "Go on," he barked, "drink it." It was just 9:30 in the morning and I demurred. "You're surely not going to pass up a glass of rakija which I, Ratko Mladic, brewed myself?"
The soldiers standing around him grinned and I realized it was time to drink up. Once I had downed the powerful liquor, he added, "I never touch the stuff myself," before breaking out into another broad grin.
This was in 1991, the year before Gen. Mladic was appointed head of the Bosnian Serb army. But even then, it was obvious that he demonstrated psychopathic tendencies. I was particularly struck by how he described his family as embodying the very finest Serbian traditions of loyalty, integrity and respect. I remembered this three years later when his daughter, Ana, distraught at her father's growing reputation as a mass murderer, committed suicide.
One of the many Serbs who never had any illusions about Gen. Mladic and the violence he was capable of inflicting on entire populations was Boris Tadic. Now, the time has come to take our hats off to Serbia's President.
Ever since he was elected to the country's highest office in 2004, Mr. Tadic has been compelled to listen to lectures from foreign dignitaries about how he and his government have not been doing enough to find Gen. Mladic. The President was accused of being a coward, unwilling to confront the possible nationalist backlash an arrest might trigger. He has read foreign press commentaries about how he and his military have been hiding the general.
None of this could be further from the truth. For many years, Mr. Tadic has regarded the arrest of all remaining indictees of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, including Mr. Mladic, as his top political priority. He knew full well that until that happened, Serbia's aspiration to join the European Union would be blocked. Mr. Tadic has always recognized that European integration is vital for his country's future prosperity and for the harmony of the entire Balkan region.
But this simple political calculation is secondary to Mr. Tadic's primary motivation, which is moral above all else.
Since taking office, he has made several dramatic gestures to attempt to overcome the devastation inflicted on the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s. He has bowed down and sought forgiveness on Serbia's behalf for the massacre at Srebrenica and other atrocities, such as the mass killing at Ovcara, Croatia.
Together with Croatian President Ivo Josipovic, Mr. Tadic has taken the lead in establishing political and cultural links between the new states forged from the former Yugoslavia. They have exchanged information about organized crime groups and suspected war criminals.
But his decision to hunt down Gen. Mladic, come what may, was not born of mere political calculation. He knew it was vital to assist with the moral rehabilitation of Serbia in the eyes of Bosnia, the Balkans, Europe and the world.
The arrest will be seen as a watershed in the history of the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans. The obstacles blocking Serbia's path to EU membership will soon be lifted. Reconciliation work remains to be done, but Mr. Tadic has made clear that Serbia is determined to move forward.
Misha Glenny is a former BBC correspondent in Central Europe and author of The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999.
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