After nearly 16 years on the run, Ratko Mladić, the war-time Bosnian Serb general and most wanted ICTY fugitive, was finally arrested on 26 May in the obscure village of Lazarevo, north of Belgrade. Indicted on 16 counts, including genocide and complicity in genocide, news of his surprise apprehension had an instantaneous reaction across the globe, with hundreds of journalists swarming to Serbia to provide first-hand insight. Whilst applauded by many, certain responses in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have revealed the extent to which the conflict in the former Yugoslavia lingers on - and the barriers that continue to prevent true reconciliation throughout the region.
Timing of arrest and EU conditionality
Fearing domestic ramifications, particularly with general elections approaching in spring 2012, Serbia’s president Boris Tadić (who also spearheaded the arrest of Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb political leader, in July 2008) carefully constructed his speech to reiterate calls for an independent and impartial investigation into the allegations of human organ trafficking in Kosovo by the Council of Europe's Special Rapporteur, Dick Marty, whilst simultaneously calling on Europe to reward Serbia’s efforts to fulfil its international obligations.
Such statements contributed to the scepticism that immediately surrounded the timing of the arrest, coming as it did just days before a report by Serge Brammertz, the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, which was expected to criticise Serbia’s efforts, and exactly on the day of an official visit of Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. President Tadić immediately rejected such criticism, dismissing all suggestions of the arrest being carefully timed, and Lady Ashton reinforced Tadić's claim in a comment piece in the Guardian, stating that she was ‘certain the timing was pure coincidence’.
Mladić's arrest was hailed as a historic step by which, according to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Serbian government had made a “courageous decision” that constituted “another step towards Serbia’s eventual integration into the European Union”. In spite of the arrest, however, several EU member states (particularly the Dutch, for whom the legacy of Srebrenica continues to exert a profound influence over questions of foreign policy) have remained apprehensive about giving the green light to Serbia's bid for EU candidate status.
Reactions and what they suggest
Today, on the sixteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, and nearly 16 years after the end of the Bosnian war, Mladić is still largely perceived either as a notorious criminal and coward who held the entire nation captive, thus blocking the possibility of reconciliation between Serbs and Bosniaks, or as a national hero whose sole mission was to protect his own people from persecution by others.
News of Mladić’s arrest was strongly welcomed throughout the region, particularly by the families of Srebrenica’s victims, who nevertheless expressed concern that his trial could end without a verdict: this was the case with Slobodan Milošević, who died in prison before the conclusion of his war crimes trial.
Many Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) will expect more concrete steps on the part of Serbia, in demonstrating that Mladić was delivered to the Hague because he indeed was the mastermind behind the Srebrenica genocide, and not because this act is good for repairing Serbia's image or a precondition for attaining EU candidacy status.
At the same time, even if many Serbs remain suspicious about the Hague Tribunal's neutrality towards the prosecution of war criminals in the former Yugoslavia, the weight of evidence against Mladić is such that it will be increasingly difficult for the crimes he orchestrated to be ignored or denied.
Following Mladić's arrest, many media reports employed emotive terms such as ‘butcher’ or ‘bloodthirsty’ to describe him, thereby almost suggesting that he was in some way psychotic or insane. Various theses about the banality of evil have warned against employing such descriptions. The crimes that occurred during the wars in the former Yugoslavia were not committed by fanatics or sociopaths, but by individuals who felt that these actions were fully justifiable given the context of disintegration and the destructive dynamic of ethnic separation that came to predominate. Suggesting that Mladić was in some way a 'deformed human' distracts attention from the prevailing climate of the early 90s, which made such unthinkable acts seemingly normal. Without properly coming to terms with this past, the prospects for future peace and harmony bode ill.
What is very disconcerting is that a significant number of Serbs in the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb entity) – particularly younger generations who were born after the war of 1990s – still strongly deny the Srebrenica genocide . They dismiss it as a gross exaggeration and manipulation of the numbers of victims on the part of Bosniaks, or as a conspiracy against Serbs on the part of the international community. Many point towards the crimes committed against Serbs in rural areas surrounding Srebrenica as justification for what ultimately happened, thereby endeavouring to equate the magnitude of the crimes committed.
Gathered in Potočari near Srebrenica, on the occasion of the sixteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, officials from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Turkey and the United States expressed satisfaction that Ratko Mladić is spending this anniversary of the tragedy in custody at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and reiterated that facing up to the past was the main condition for reconciliation in the region. However, it remains to be seen whether Mladić’s arrest will finally lead to a healing of wounds and reconciliation between the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This process must be generated from within, without external pressures and conditioning, but rather as a genuine demonstration of empathy, remorse and forgiveness.
All societies in the western Balkans are still to undergo a genuine process of acknowledging the crimes committed on behalf of their respective ethno-national groups, without attempts at relativising the facts by citing examples of crimes committed against their own people. By adopting the Resolution on Srebrenica in March 2010, and arresting Mladić, the Serbian government has laid foundations for the process of reconciliation, the strengthening of regional ties and the overall normalisation of neighbourly relations.
This process will not be quick nor easy, as the wounds of history take time to heal. However, we can only hope that the day will come when such acts will no longer be praised as demonstrations of ‘courage’ or ‘personal heroism’ on the part of political elites, but as a moral obligation and expression of human values on the part of us all.