After a decade and a half of internal struggles and tense negotiations, Serbia on Thursday finally ended the longest saga of the Balkan wars by arresting and preparing to hand over Ratko Mladic, the former militiaman behind some of the most atrocious and large-scale humanitarian crimes of the late 20th century.
His arrest by Serbian security officers ends a dilemma that has trapped Serbia in a rogue-state netherworld for much of the past decade: Even as the democracy movement that unseated ethnic nationalist Slobodan Milosevic gained increasingly secure power over the government, they seemed endlessly unable to apprehend the last major figure from that dark era.
Three years ago, the head of Serbia’s security services, in an interview at a downtown Belgrade coffee shop, was asked the central question: Why on earth had it taken his country so long to capture a fugitive whose impunity threatened the future of his country? Mr. Mladic, after all, was frequently seen driving a Yugo and dining in the fish restaurants along the Danube coast in Belgrade.
The newly appointed security official answered. “We know how to get Mladic, and we are going to get Mladic. This is 100-per-cent certain. We know where he is, and we know how to do it. It will happen. But you’ll have to give us time. It won’t be this month, and it won’t be this year. First we have to deal with the things inside Serbia that stand in the way of his arrest.”
A few days before that conversation, security forces had caught up with Radovan Karadzic, the ultranationalist politician whose ethnic-cleansing policies had turned Bosnia into a place of mass murder in the 1990s.
But Serbia, as all its citizens knew, would never be allowed fully to join the European economy and political community until it managed to cough up the man who carried out those atrocities, military commander Mr. Mladic.
Three years later, on Thursday morning, his forces finally caught up with Mr. Mladic in an operation reportedly planned and directed by President Boris Tadic himself, using stealth and secrecy to evade both the warlord’s protectors and those figures within the Serbian hierarchy who might have tipped him off and ended the operation.
The arrest not only puts a punctuation mark on the 20-year saga of ethnic murder, political extremism and rogue-state isolation that virtually destroyed the land once known as Yugoslavia. It also marks the beginning of a genuine normalization of Serbia, as Mr. Mladic’s fugitive status was the largest and most intractable barrier to this former power’s return to the European community.
But why had it taken so long? What were the mysterious forces that stood in the way, holding Serbia in a pariah-state limbo for more than a decade? He would not say. But it was widely understood that Serbia’s uniformed ranks were still full of elite forces still loyal to the ethnic-nationalist governments that had poisoned the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s.
There may have been good reason to wait until those forces had been purged, cashiered, or moved aside within the security service, even if the delay infuriated European leaders: It was those internal forces that had assassinated Mr. Tadic’s predecessor as head of the Democratic Party, Serbian president Zoran Djindjic, in 2003.
For many years after that, the radical ultranationalists seemed to be gaining the upper hand both in the elected parliament and within the more secretive ranks of Serbia’s uniformed services. The democrats were barely able to scrape together majorities, which often fell apart, making it nearly impossible to reform the security services.
It was clear, as early as 2008, that Serbia’s government was changing, shifting from the inside, as Mr. Tadic slowly chiselled away the people and politics of the 1990s from his government.
“Just as Milosevic forced nationalism on a largely cosmopolitan Yugoslavia in the 1990s,” the Serbian diplomat Dejan Povovic once told me, “now Tadic is trying to force cosmopolitanism on a largely nationalistic Serbia.”
Despite missteps and political flaws of his own, Mr. Tadic slowly turned things around: He helped broker a deal where the old Socialist Party of Mr. Milosevic gave up its ethnic-nationalist bent and became a moderate, mainstream social-democratic party in an effort to gain legitimacy.
And he appointed a new executive to run the security services, allowing the old nationalists to depart with dignity.
It was, as a great many Serbian intellectuals pointed out, not helped at all by the European Union, which for too long seemed to punish the democratic activists for their political victory, using the war-crimes fugitives as an excuse to keep the country isolated – sending the message to many voters that reform meant pain. Only in the late 2000s did the EU begin to open up to Serbia, and this in turn allowed Mr. Tadic to win wider support.
The Mladic arrest marks the end of a legal saga, opening Serbia to full European membership. But it is hardly the end of Serbia’s own political saga, which is poisoned by a stagnant economy and an education system that continues to teach the 1990s as a period of Serbian victimization.
The Radical Party, whose official leader, Vojislav Seselj, is himself detained in The Hague on war-crimes charges, remains the second largest party in the legislature, on the verge of forming a governing coalition in any election. Observers feel that between 30 and 35 per cent of Serbs believe its ultranationalist message, but more could vote for it out of anger.
And the Mladic arrest could provoke such anger, driving disgruntled and humiliated voters, tired of years without economic or political reward, to back the radicals and drive Mr. Tadic out of office. It would be a sad and ironic end to this exhausting political saga, but not a totally surprising one.