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Approximately 2,000 Bosnian Serbs, mostly youths, gathered in Pale near Sarajevo, on May 27, 2011, to show support and anger after the arrest of Bosnian Serb wartime miltary leader, General Ratko Mladic. (Elevis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images/Elevis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)
Approximately 2,000 Bosnian Serbs, mostly youths, gathered in Pale near Sarajevo, on May 27, 2011, to show support and anger after the arrest of Bosnian Serb wartime miltary leader, General Ratko Mladic. (Elevis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images/Elevis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)

Serbian moderates set to seize the moment Add to ...

It was easy to find the angry men on Friday, holding banners and shouting on the dusty main street of the town where Ratko Mladic was captured the day before after 16 years on the run, or in the main squares of Belgrade, raging at the loss of their ethnically pure "greater Serbia" and its last remaining warrior.

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Even five years ago, it would have seemed certain that their anger would swell, in this economically devastated country, to fill the streets and overwhelm the political system, threatening to drive the democracy-movement government out of power.

But this was a different Serbia that prepared to send Mr. Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb militia leader held responsible for thousands of ethnic-cleansing deaths in the 1990s, to the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague Friday night.

Most observers in the Balkans said the arrest of Europe's last great war criminal is more likely to launch a new and less extreme political moment in Serbia - albeit one fraught with hazards - than to trigger an angry shift to the Serbian Radical Party. It is deeply loyal to Mr. Mladic and his Serbian-supremacist movement and remains the second largest party in the Belgrade parliament after President Boris Tadic's ruling Democrats.

"We finally are beginning to have some reasons for optimism," said Sonja Biserko, a democracy activist who has been one of the most darkly pessimistic observers of the rising tides of ethnic-nationalist extremism and political corruption during the past decade. The office of her Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, in Novi Sad, is a few kilometres from the town where Mr. Mladic was captured, in a region dense with Bosnian-Serb exiles. But she said that even these regions are unlikely to become radicalized.

"The Radical Party will organize rallies, but I don't know how much support they really have any more - I don't think they will be able to succeed this time. They did have very strong influence in the military and police, but they have been very much reformed under Tadic. The opposition now has nothing to offer - they have no vision of Serbia."

On Thursday night, a few hundred people gathered on the streets of Belgrade, the capital, and Novi Sad, the capital of the Vojvodinia region where Mr. Mladic was arrested. And the Serbian Radical Party plans to hold a major rally in Belgrade on Sunday.

Few expect the rallies to become national movements as they would have done a decade ago - and the odds remain strong that Mr. Tadic's Democratic Party will be able to maintain its fragile coalition in next year's parliamentary elections.

Despite the optimism engendered by this European moment, Serbian politics remain volatile.

That was evident in Mr. Tadic's surprising decision Friday to boycott a Warsaw summit with U.S. President Barack Obama. While the meeting would have appeared to the outside world to represent the victorious welcome of a Serbian leader who had brought his country in from the cold, for Mr. Tadic it was a matter of Serbia's anger over the U.S. decision to recognize the national independence of Kosovo.

At issue is the decision by Western powers in 2008 to allow the secession of Kosovo, the former Serbian province whose population of mainly Albanian-speaking Muslims had been brutally victimized by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s before a NATO military campaign essentially isolated it from Serbia in 1999.

Many Serbs, even moderates, still regard Kosovo as part of their country, and many feel it would be political suicide for any politician to even speak of recognizing Kosovo's independence.

So Mr. Tadic not only refuses to recognize Kosovo's nationhood but actively protests against its independence; the Serbian embassy in Ottawa still lacks an ambassador after the previous one was withdrawn in 2008 in protest against Canada's decision to recognize Kosovo's sovereignty.

Mr. Tadic, who was a key figure in the democracy movement that drove Mr. Milosevic from power in 2000, is not regarded by insiders as being emotionally attached to Kosovo. In fact, he has quietly made moves to normalize relations with the breakaway state and quashed militia movements that would try to defend or win back the former province.

Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski expressed frustration with Mr. Tadic: "Serbia has to show that it has overcome the demons from its past," he told reporters Friday.

But the boycott of the Warsaw meeting sent an important message within Serbia, analysts said. "Tadic needs to show Serbs that this is not all just about giving in to European pressure, but that they will get better lives from this process, so Europe will need to make sure the trade and economic benefits start happening, and step back and allow Kosovo to take some time," Ms. Biserko said.

Mr. Mladic will likely be delivered to The Hague war-crimes tribunal within days, where he will face 15 charges of genocide, murder and crimes against humanity.

Follow on Twitter: @dougsaunders

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