Radovan Karadzic: the politics of an arrest

Eric Gordy
22 July 2008

The news that Radovan Karadzic had been arrested came suddenly late in the evening of 21 July 2008. The known facts surrounding the detention remain meagre, even after the Serbian government press conference in Belgrade the following morning. It appears that he was arrested in the early evening; that the arrest took place in Belgrade itself, where Karadzic had been working in disguise as a practitioner of alternative medicine; and that the operation was conducted (as a statement by Serbia's national-security council was quick to attest) by "Serbian security forces". There also appears to have been some conflict over how the arrest was carried out and over who should be accorded (and be able to disown) responsibility: Serbia's interior ministry, now under the control of the party that sponsored and financed Karadzic during his rise to power and throughout the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992-95, rushed to issue a statement declaring that its forces were not involved.

Eric Gordy is senior lecturer in southeast politics at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University of London. He was previously associate professor of sociology at Clark University, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Penn State University Press, 1999), and writes for the blog East Ethnia

Also by Eric Gordy in openDemocracy:

"The Milosevic account" (17 March 2006)

"Serbia's elections: less of the same" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

"Serbia's presidential election: the best-laid plans..." (21 January 2008)

"Serbia chooses a future, just" (5 February 2008)

"Serbia's political carousel" (12 May 2008)

The arrest of Karadzic had been sought since 1995, when the first charges against him were filed at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY; the indictment can be found here). The charges include accusations of genocide, which is also the case for the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who remains a fugitive. In 1996, in the aftermath of the Dayton peace agreement that ended the fighting in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Karadzic was compelled to leave his post as president of the Serb entity and has been a fugitive since.

His whereabouts since then have been the subject of widespread discussion. In the late 1990s he was sighted several times, amid some speculation that he had reason to believe that he could appear in public without risking arrest. Among the rumours circling at the time was one - which has not been persuasively confirmed - that the United States negotiator Richard Holbrooke had guaranteed Karadzic protection from arrest in exchange for his resignation.

After his political sponsor Slobodan Miloševic was removed from power in October 2000, reports that Karadzic had been sighted became rarer. It was widely believed that he was protected by a loyal group who shuttled him between his family home in Pale near Sarajevo, through a network of monasteries in eastern Hercegovina, and sometimes to his native Montenegro where his mother and other relatives continued to live. There were occasional raids on the homes of his family members and known supporters, but their consistent failure to find him increased the perception that his arrest was something of a lost cause.

A light in the murk

The details of Karadzic's capture may at this stage be sparse - even after the Serbian government's press conference, and subsequent media reports - but they lend themselves to speculation on three grounds. First, that he was arrested in Serbia rather than in Bosnia-Hercegovina or Montenegro suggests that his support network may have had more confidence in its ability to avoid the people seeking him than was previously believed (otherwise why allow him to take the risk of moving inside the country?). Second, that it was Serbian rather than international security forces that captured him represents something of a coup for Serbia and its government; at the same time this raises doubts about how much people within the Serbian security elite may have known of his whereabouts all along. Third, that Karadzic should have been arrested now is a denoument in search of an explanation. Two kinds immediately suggests themselves: political and institutional.

The political explanation is that the arrest comes soon after a coalition government in Serbia was formed after the elections of 11 May 2008; and, perhaps just as significantly, days after Serbian president Boris Tadic appointed a person loyal to him - Sasa Vukadinovic - as head of the security and intelligence agency. Although the Socialist Party once led by Slobodan Milosevic is a member of the new governing coalition, Karadzic's arrest might be seen as a declaration on the part of Tadic that he and his party are now in full control. If this is so, the arrest might be interpreted as confirming that the arrest of fugitives sought by the ICTY has always been a question of political will rather than of operational capacity.

The institutional explanation is suggested by the complaint of the former Bosnian Serb police commander Stojan Zupljanin on 11 June 2008 about the weakness of the network that had kept him in hiding. The fugitives' support-bases are composed of people who had open access to military, police and government networks while Milosevic was in power. The success of the conspiracy to murder prime minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003 suggests that many of their channels remained open for some time afterward. But this power appears to be degrading over time. There is no longer the measure of political support - in public opinion or from government institutions - for the killers of the 1990s that there once was. Meanwhile the police, military and security services themselves are coming increasingly to be staffed by people who would rather do their jobs than protect criminals from the receding past.

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

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

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

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?" (21 July 2008) A cruder explanation that combines these political and institutional elements would suggest that the Karadzic arrest became possible once people appointed by the former premier Vojislav Kostunica - who left office after his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) lost ground in the 11 May election - ceased controlling the security services.

A break in the ice

Serbia, now that it has at last carried out the arrest of Karadzic, is certainly in a better position today than it was yesterday. The main condition for entry into European Union institutions is to arrest fugitives, and this arrest leaves just two on the list. There will continue to be great interest in apprehending one of them, the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, who together with Karadzic is charged with genocide (after the detention of Stojan Zupljanin, apart from Mladic himself the sole remaining target is the Croatian Serb wartime leader Goran Hadzic).

Serge Brammertz, the ICTY prosecutor, issued a statement welcoming the arrest. He must, however, be conscious of the challenge that awaits him. Not all of the major ICTY cases have gone so well for the prosecution. The prime suspect Slobodan Miloševic died in custody in March 2006 before a verdict could be reached; while one of the main witnesses against Milosevic, his former collaborator Milan Babic, committed suicide in custody. The trial of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Seselj repeatedly threatens to descend into a judicial circus. The acquittals of the Bosniak military commander Naser Oric and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander Ramush Haradinaj have made the prosecution appear at best to be deficient in skill. The tribunal also on 18 July 2008 released its first convict, the unrepentant low-ranking soldier Dusan (Dusko) Tadic, after he had served two-thirds of his twenty-year sentence.

In this context, the cases of Radovan Karadzic and (if and when he is arrested) Ratko Mladic represent the last opportunities the ICTY prosecution will have to realise the potential of this international judicial institution and get it right.

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