Serbia’s Arresting Development

The following article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Laura Silber is senior policy advisor at the Open Society Institute and coauthor of Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation.

After 13 years of fulsome denials, false starts and broken promises, Serbia’s new leaders have finally taken the step they said was impossible. On Monday, police arrested Radovan Karadzic, one of the remaining marquee fugitives indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

In 1990, when I was a reporter covering Yugoslavia, Karadzic seemed a reluctant politician. He’d been a psychiatrist with a great wit and had a penchant for reciting his own epic poetry. As Bosnia slid inexorably toward war over the next two years, Karadzic was transformed. Sitting in the Hotel Panorama one night, Karadzic bragged that he had just issued his own currency and signed his name for me on a newly minted bill. The idea that his state, whose capitol was a ski chalet, would have its own currency seemed preposterous. From his face, however, I saw that this was no joke.

Karadzic’s arrest cannot—and should not—be underplayed. More than just the closing of a chapter of bloody history, it is a signal about the future. The newly formed government in Belgrade is demonstrating that it is serious about bringing Serbia into the European fold.

Likewise, when I was in Belgrade just a few weeks ago, it was clear how badly Serbia wants a fresh start with the U.S. as well. Graffiti scrawled on walls read: “Barack Obama—always be with us.” The main newspaper is serializing Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope.”

It’s a long way from the early ’90s, when Karadzic was the paramount political leader of the Bosnian Serbs and, along with Croatian leaders, tried to militarily partition Bosnia-Herzegovina's territory and create ethnically pure states. Karadzic oversaw the decision-making that displaced 1.5 million people across huge swathes of Bosnia-Herzegovina beginning in late March 1992. They used overwhelming firepower to remove Muslims and members of other minority groups from towns and villages, executing as many of the men as possible and sending away the women, children and old people in buses, cars and trains.

Karadzic presided over the years of terror in Sarajevo, when Serbian bombardments destroyed crowded neighborhoods and Serbian sniper attacks targeted people crossing streets. Under his watch, there were the rape camps, where sexual assault was the weapon of choice. Then came the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, a mining town in eastern Bosnia packed with 40,000 Muslims, mostly refugees who were supposed to have been under UN protection. Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs’ top military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, launched an attack on Srebrenica and then executed about 8,000 Muslim men and boys who had been taken captive, blindfolded and their hands bound in wire ligatures.

The UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia indicted Karadzic and Mladic in mid-1995, and the counts against them were expanded to include the Srebrenica killings a year later.

Then the long wait began. Karadzic and Mladic disappeared underground, though Mladic surfaced from time to time. For more than a dozen years, Serbia’s leaders squirmed away from their responsibility to arrest them—and a few even denied that the Srebrenica massacre had ever happened.

Even a few months ago, the political outlook in Serbia seemed bleak. Nationalist rioters in Belgrade torched the embassies of the United States and other countries that had recognized Kosovo, a former Serbian province whose population, more than 90 percent Albanian, declared independence in February. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica—whose politics parallel Karadzic’s—then called for parliamentary elections in May, hoping to take advantage of the fury over Kosovo and sweep the government with ultranationalists. But he grossly miscalculated. The Serbs, after two decades, had finally wearied of the nationalist hysteria that destroyed the old Yugoslavia. Pro-Europe parties emerged as the winners.

Crucial to the shift was the European Union’s decision to enter into a “stabilization and association agreement” with Serbia, a first move toward possible EU membership. Perhaps most significantly, the EU loosened some visa requirements for Serbs, who had effectively been barred from traveling for more than a decade.

Last week, President Boris Tadic appointed a new chief of the secret police, so that for the first time in Serbia, both the civilian and military secret police are under the control of a Western-leaning democrat and beyond the reach of the nationalists. Karadzic’s arrest is the direct result of this important step.

Now, Serbia must deliver the final two fugitives wanted by the war crimes tribunal: Mladic and Goran Hadzic, the former leader of the rebel Serbs in Croatia's eastern panhandle. It also must eventually recognize Kosovo’s independence—though that is political suicide in the near term. Kosovo, the formal seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, is considered by many Serbs to be the cradle of their nation. The new government is, however, promising to be less surly about Kosovo and offering to play a positive role in stabilizing the region.

In return, the EU should start implementing the stabilization and association agreement. Both the EU and the U.S. should free up financial assistance to bolster education and improve infrastructure. After five years of warfare, and 13 years of waiting, there is a lot left to do. And for Karadzic, the man who insisted to me that it would be easy to divide up Bosnia-Herzegovina, the waiting begins.

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