Radovan Karadzic’s capture: a moment for history

Dejan Djokic
22 July 2008

The arrest in Belgrade of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' political leader in the war of 1992-95, is both welcome and surprising news. The circumstances and timing also provide some hopeful indications that it - and the trial that will follow - will become an important moment over the longer term, in helping to lift the burden of the past that still weighs so heavily on the peoples of the region.

Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He was formerly lecturer in Serbian and Croatian studies at the University of Nottingham. He is the editor of Yugoslavism: Histories of a Failed Idea (C Hurst, 2003 and University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), and author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007)

Also by Dejan Djokic on openDemocracy:

"Serbia: one year after the October revolution" (17 October 2001)

"A farewell to Yugoslavia" (10 April 2002)

"Serbia: monarchy and national identity" (30 May 2002)

"Ex-Yu rock" (6 August 2002)

"Serbian presidential elections" (17 September 2002)

"A conflict of loyalties: 1999 and 2003" (6 March 2003)

"The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (13 March 2003)

"A democracy of suspicion" (27 May 2008)

That the news which arrived on the evening of 21 July 2008 should be welcomed needs little further elaboration. Karadzic was the figurehead of a Bosnian Serb breakaway statelet (the Republika Srpska) within Bosnia-Herzegovina, which itself broke away from Yugoslavia in 1992 - contrary to the wishes of most of its Serbs, who formed around one-third of the republic's population. The "wars of Yugoslav succession" were bloody, but nowhere more so than in Bosnia and nowhere in Bosnia more than in areas controlled by Bosnian Serbs. The ethnic cleansing and massacres of eastern Bosnian Muslims and the shelling of Sarajevo in the first half of the 1990s were among the final dark chapters of Europe's violent century.

Together with general Ratko Mladic - the Bosnian Serb military commander still at large - Karadzic is alleged to have been responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. His likely trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague will in principle mean both that justice will be served, and that further light will be shed on the regional and international dimensions of the Bosnian war. It may even lead to Mladic, if he is not arrested before the start of the trial, himself being captured.

Karadzic's arrest, after he had spent nearly thirteen years in hiding, comes as a surprise for at least two reasons. First, of the three remaining war-crimes suspects (the other is the Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic, who is generally considered a minor player), Mladic seemed the most likely to be arrested first, certainly before Karadzic. While Karadzic was believed to be concealed somewhere in the mountains of eastern Herzegovina and Montenegro, possibly in a remote Serbian monastery, it was widely assumed that Mladic was in Serbia, shielded by renegade elements of the Serbian security and military forces.

Second, it was Mladic's arrest that was demanded of Belgrade if Serbia was to move closer to European Union membership. The arrest on 11 June 2008 of the former Bosnian Serb police commander Stojan Zupljanin, and his extradition to The Hague, was seen as a sign that the circle around Mladic was closing. So, the news that Karadzic was arrested - allegedly in or near Belgrade itself, where he had apparently been working in disguise as a practitioner of alternative medicine - comes as a surprise even to those who follow Serbian politics closely.

Those who believed that Karadzic would never be caught might have been less confident had they known how close the fugitive was to those charged with finding him. The news of his location and new "occupation" in Belgrade was revealed at a press conference on 22 July hosted by Rasim Ljajic, president of the national council for cooperation with The Hague tribunal, and Vladimir Vukcevic, the chief war-crimes prosecutor. They reported that he used the pseudonym "Dragan Dabic", while the photo presented by Ljajic underlined the change in appearance: Karadzic looked notably thinner, was bespectacled, and wore long white hair and a long beard. His real identity was apparently not recognised even by his colleagues and patients, and allegedly "Dragan Dabic" even published articles and gave several public lectures on healthy living and alternative medicine.

A fresh politics

What most initial reactions to the arrest have failed to acknowledge is the context in which the arrest took place and the likely implications for Serbia and the region. Karadzic was comprehended only three weeks after the formation of a new Serbian government led by Mirko Cvetkovic - a coalition between president Boris Tadic's Democratic Party, several smaller democratic and ethnic-minority parties and the Socialists (the party founded by the late president Slobodan Milosevic). The interior ministry went to Ivica Dacic, Milosevic's successor as party leader, who also became the deputy premier.

Tadic was scorned for this alliance - more in Serbia and the region than in the west, where there was a sense of relief that the Socialists (rather than the Serbian Radical Party [SRS] and the Democratic Party of Serbia [DSS] of former prime minister Vojislav Kostunica) tipped the balance in favour of the Democrats. Tadic's critics feared in particular that Dacic's appointment as interior minister would mean that the Socialists would take control of the intelligence services, rehabilitate Milosevic and essentially return the country to the dark days of the last decade. Yet, Karadzic's arrest and its timing confirm that Serbia's president is far shrewder a politician than he is often given credit for. This fact should already have been more widely acknowledged, given that Tadic has defeated the Radicals at several "historic" elections since 2004.

Also in openDemocracy on transnational justice after the wars of ex-Yugoslavia:

William Schabas, "The enigma of the International Criminal Court's success" (17 February 2006)

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic" (14 March 2006)

Martin Shaw, "The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide" (28 February 2007)

Nick Grono, "The International Criminal Court: success or failure?" (9 June 2008)

Alex de Waal, "Sudan and the International Criminal Court: a guide to the controversy" (14 July 2008)

Victor Peskin, "The Omar al-Bashir indictment: the ICC and the Darfur crisis" (15 July 2008)

Marlies Glasius, "What is global justice and who is it for? The ICC's first five years" (21 July 2008)

Eric Gordy, "Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest" (22 July 2008) Moreover, Tadic appears to have eliminated the nationalist, conservative democrat Vojislav Kostunica as a serious political rival - thus trumping the many past accusations that he gave in too easily to Kostunica's demands. Kostunica had for years refused to apprehend either Karadzic or Mladic, claiming that they were not in Serbia; Tadic, who no doubt played a central part in Karadzic's arrest, has now shown the former prime minister how it could have been done. For his part, Kostunica will be now at pains to explain how was it possible for the new government to arrest Karadzic only weeks after its inauguration.

In addition, Tadic has deftly gained advantage over Ivica Dacic, and placed him in a delicate position: by staying inside the government the Socialist leader and deputy prime minister would thus accept the new course, by resigning he would lose the position of power that only a few weeks ago appeared permanently beyond his party's reach. Either response carries the risk that Dacic will lose credibility among his constituency. It is significant here that Karadzic was arrested not by the police - nominally under the control of Dacic - but by the secret services.

The arrest took place only days after Sasa Vukadinovic was appointed the new head of Serbian intelligence services. Vukadinovic is an uncompromising young police inspector from southern Serbia, believed to be close to president Tadic. He came to prominence after the assassination in 2003 of Zoran Djindjic, Tadic's predecessor as the Democrats' leader, masterminding arrests of members of one of the major mafia clans in the country. Significantly, Vukadinovic had never worked for the secret services before and is thus not associated with the organisation which has seemingly remained immune to political changes in the country.

The dramatic event of 21 July therefore is likely to have wide implications. The arrest of Karadzic and the reform of the intelligence services it reflects are both long overdue, and could be followed by the arrest of Ratko Mladic in the near future. In all this, Boris Tadic may finally succeed where Djindjic failed - or was prevented from succeeding by his assassination. This would be good news for the Serbian president, but even more for Serbia and for the region, which should now move closer to the European Union and become more attractive to foreign investment. The main remaining obstacle for Serbia gaining a candidate-country status is its inability or refusal so far fully to cooperate with The Hague. The tribunal's new chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, is due to visit Belgrade on 23 July and his report will undoubtedly be positive.

A turned page

It must not be forgotten that Karadzic's arrest will be welcomed first and foremost by the families of victims of his policies. If - or probably when - his guilt is proven, they would feel that justice was served, even though their loss will never be compensated.

In any event, the whole region is now a significant step closer to getting rid of some of the past's burden. The news of Karadzic's arrest has overshadowed the death on the same day of two figures from Yugoslavia's turbulent history, who embodied radically different ideologies: Adil Zulfikarpasic, a Bosniak businessman and politician, and once a member of the pro-Yugoslav "Democratic Alternative" émigré group; and Dinko Sakic, commander of the notorious Croatian concentration-camp at Jasenovac, where during the second world war tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-Ustasha Croats were murdered.

The lives of these personalities were also entwined, in that Zulfikarpasic was nearly killed by the Ustashas in the early 1940s. Half a century later he tried in vain to strike a deal with Karadzic and Milosevic in order to avoid war in Bosnia, and in the process fell out with Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia. Yet in a larger frame Zulfikarpasic's most significant contribution and legacy may well lie elsewhere, in the founding of a large library in Sarajevo that would serve as a research institute devoted to the study of Bosnia's culture and history. History that both Dinko Sakic and Radovan Karadzic, in their own ways and in different historical contexts, once tried to erase.

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