Karadzic: A Victim of Soft Power

24 July 2008

Karadzic: A Victim of Soft Power

 By Gwynne Dyer

Radovan Karadzic’s disguise was quite elaborate, but he didn’t spent the past thirteen years hiding from the Serbian authorities. They knew where he was all along. Only ten days after the government changed, the police plucked him off the 73 bus that he rode to work every day and started the process of extraditing him to The Hague to face the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

So why was Karadzic in disguise, then? Because he was a compulsive showman who always sought the limelight, and hiding in obscurity was driving him crazy. The disguise, the false name, the whole different persona were a way for him to resume a public life (as an alternative medicine “healer”), not a way of hiding from the state security and intelligence services. They were actually protecting him from the agents of the international court, because that was usually what the Serbian government wanted.

It was certainly what Slobodan Milosevic, the main author of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, wanted. Until he was overthrown by a bloodless revolution in 2000, all the ultra-nationalists who had set out “cleanse” non-Serbs from the Serbian-inhabited parts of former Yugoslavia were safe from the UN tribunal in The Hague, including Karadzic and his chief collaborator in the murder of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, General Ratko Mladic.

But Milosevic was overthrown because he had lost the wars and ruined the economy, not because he had sponsored a genocide. Even today, fully a third of the Serbian population believes that Serbs are the innocent victims of foreign plots, not the citizens of a state that set out “cleanse” non-Serbs from all the parts of former Yugoslavia where there was a substantial Serbian population. And the new president who sent Milosevic and a couple of his close allies off to face trial at The Hague, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated by a Serbian extremist in 2003.

Serbia was sinking into the role of a pariah state — even Montenegro voted to separate from it in 2006 — but nobody in power was able to make a clean break with the past by denouncing the genocide and handing its other chief actors, like Karadzic and Mladic, over to the international court.

Other parts of former Yugoslavia joined the European Union (Slovenia) or at least became candidates for membership (Croatia and Macedonia). Their economies began to take off as EU funds flowed in, and foreign investment followed because they now seemed like good, stable places to invest. All the while, Serbia sat in the corner muttering to itself about how unfair it was and clinging to its self-justifying myths about the past.

Indeed, in recent years it seemed likely that none of the major Serbian perpetrators of the genocide would be punished at all. Milosevic died before he could be convicted, and Serbia wasn’t handing over any more suspects even though it was increasingly beset by isolation and poverty. Then came the parliamentary election of ten weeks ago. It was not a sweeping rejection of the nationalists and their obsessions, but it did create the mathematical possibility of a coalition government in Belgrade that rejected the past.

It took two months, but early this month a government emerged (with much help from President Boris Tadic) that was willing to move against the Serbian war criminals. Led by Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, it has already “found” Radovan Karadzic, and before long it may also find General Mladic and the Serb responsible for the worst atrocities in Croatia, Goran Hadzic. What is motivating it to act so decisively, and why are so many Serbs now willing to go along with it?

Two letters: EU. The Serbs are tired of being out in the cold, and they want back into Europe. They want the prosperity, the constitutional stability, the democracy, the rule of law that seem to flourish almost magically in countries that join the European Union. And EU diplomats have made it very clear to the Serbs that there will be no discussions about membership until Serbia hands over its war criminals.

What got Karadzic, in the end, was the “soft power” of the European Union: the immense attraction of belonging to a continent-wide organisation that really does deliver such benefits to its members. It’s a cumbersome organisation and frequently criticised for good reasons, but it offers Serbia a way back into civilised society. Under Tadic and Cvetkovic, it is taking that route at last.

The EU is playing hardball: no formal discussions on membership until the other two “most wanted” men, Mladic and Hadzic, are also handed over to The Hague for trial. But meeting that demand should not even cause the Serbian security and intelligence people to break out in a sweat, because they surely must know their whereabouts day and night. Then, the Serbs reckon, it’s one year to candidate membership status, and five years to full membership.

Genuine repentance for all the horrors that Serbia inflicted on its partners in former Yugoslavia would be nice, but it’s too soon to hope for that. Radovan Karadzic in chains will have to do.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Serbia…past”)