Global Policy Forum

Hanging on Mladic

Transitions Online
May 9, 2006

Serbia's failure to cough up the fugitive Ratko Mladic pushes PM Kostunica deeper into isolation.

The Serbian government is under immense pressure from the European Union and from the other democratic parties in the country after missing the deadline to apprehend fugitive General Ratko Mladic.

Serbia's failure to arrest the former Bosnian Serb military commander and transfer him to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) by the end of April has endangered its European prospects and the survival of the minority government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica.

After Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn announced on 3 May that the EU was suspending association talks with Serbia and Montenegro until Mladic was in ICTY custody in The Hague, Serbian police launched a wide-ranging operation aimed at finding Mladic, who faces charges of genocide in Bosnia during the 1992–1995 war.


In the course of three days, police arrested several people suspected of helping Mladic after 2002, when a law banning aid to ICTY fugitives was passed. That year Mladic was stripped of all his passes to enter military facilities. The Serbian authorities claim that they do not know where Mladic has been hiding since then.

On 5 May police special forces held the Belgrade district of Banovo Brdo, where Mladic's family lives, under blockade for several hours. Two days later, the operations continued in the Valjevo area of western Serbia, where the fugitive general lived at times until 2002. Police helicopters hovered overhead as masked policemen searched the homes and bee farms of Mladic's former neighbors.

The search netted only a few little-known individuals. Those arrested so far seem to be of modest means, and most have links to the army of Serbia and Montenegro or the armed forces of Bosnia's Serb-led Republika Srpska entity, allegedly coming into contact with Mladic there. A source close to the hunt for Mladic told TOL that police had found several rented apartments where he stayed, adding that he had been living in conditions "unworthy of human dignity."

In contrast to the case of Croatian General Ante Gotovina, who was linked with one of Croatia's richest businessmen, Hrvoje Petrac, before his arrest in December 2005 in the Canary Islands, some observers believe that Mladic has been hiding in modest apartments with the help of a very small number of people.

Talking to reporters after a Serbian government session on 4 May, Economy Minister Predrag Bubalo said that Mladic's movements between April 2002 and late 2005 had been fully reconstructed. However, the minister did not explain how the security services, which have until recently claimed they did not know where Mladic has been hiding, have managed to retrace his movements so quickly. Bubalo added that Mladic seemed to completely disappear in late 2005. He said that Mladic's support network had shrunk from around 50 people in 2002 to 10 or so, and that five people had been arrested between January and April on suspicion of renting apartments on Mladic's behalf. They include two former members of the Republika Srpska armed forces and a retired Serbia-Montenegro army officer.

The latest police operations resulted in the arrests of four people suspected of bringing food to Mladic, and a former Republika Srpska army officer and head of the Bosnian Serb military security service, Marko Lugonja. The details of the case against them are protected by state secrecy laws, but Belgrade media reported that all had been in contact with Mladic in 2002.

If such reports turn out to have a basis in fact, further doubt will fall over the effectiveness of the ongoing police operations. ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has already said that she was not impressed with the actions undertaken by the Serbian police, describing them as "theater."

Serbia and Montenegro's minister for human rights and minorities, Rasim Ljajic, tried to explain why the Mladic case has been such a challenge for the Serbian democratic authorities for years now. Mladic could have been arrested after the ouster of the late President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000, but it was politically dangerous to do so then, he said. When the political climate changed after the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, the chance to nab Mladic had passed. Now that the arrest is a political option, "it cannot be done, meaning we don't know where Mladic is," Ljajic said.


Either way, the Serbian government is trying to leave the impression that it is genuinely committed to meeting its obligations toward the ICTY and to continuing integration talks with Brussels, a first step on the way to eventual EU membership. The next round of talks was scheduled for 11 May, and the EU has told Serbia that the talks can go ahead if Mladic were in ICTY custody by then, something that now appears unlikely.

At the same time, the government has come under increasing internal pressure, beginning with the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, who also headed Serbia's EU negotiation team. Labus resigned on 3 May, just two hours after Commissioner Rehn suspended the negotiations. Labus called on the remaining three ministers from his G17 Plus party to leave the government as well, but the party seems to prefer staying inside the coalition for the time being.

G17 Plus deputy chair and Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said that Labus' resignation was "a personal act" and that Labus had not consulted him before leaving the government. Before the resignation, Belgrade media had reported a conflict between Labus and Dinkic within the party and that Dinkic had in effect managed to take over the leadership. The final balance of power in the party may become known when its steering committee votes on 13 May whether to remain in the government.

Regardless of the outcome of that vote, however, Kostunica's government found a new lease on life when Labus said G17 Plus would keep supporting the government in parliament for as long as the negotiations on a final status for Kosovo lasted. Dinkic, however, said on 8 May that he would insist on an early election if Mladic were still at large by September.

In his resignation announcement, Labus said that the Serbian security services were responsible for the failure to track down Mladic. Rehn had said the same in a press conference after announcing the suspension of integration talks.

Belgrade military analyst Zoran Dragisic agrees. He believes that the Serbian government does not fully control the secret services. "It is certain that Kostunica does control the heads of the security services, but it is questionable whether the government controls the entire service. The security services were not fully reformed after the democratic changes of 2000," Dragisic told TOL.


Kostunica could also face pressure from another coalition partner: the Serbian Renewal Movement led by Serbia and Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic. Draskovic has already demanded the resignations of Serbian secret police chief Rade Bulatovic and Interior Minister Dragan Jocic, both close aides to the prime minister. It is highly unlikely that Kostunica will be willing to give them up.

Much of this may simply be political maneuvering. Opinion polls suggest that neither G17 Plus nor the Serbian Renewal Movement will garner enough votes to get into parliament after the next election. Party leaders will likely think twice before provoking early elections, despite Dinkic's threat.

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who wants his country to leave the state union with Serbia, has used Serbia's failure to yield up Mladic to good effect, saying that Montenegro was now being held hostage by Serbia's lack of cooperation with the ICTY and urging its citizens to vote for an independent Montenegro in the 21 May referendum. Independence would speed Montenegro's approach to the EU, he said.

A final player in the game is the opposition Democratic Party headed by Serbian President Boris Tadic. On 6 May Tadic said that the government was not showing "enough courage in the face of challenges" and added that a government led by his party could solve the problem of cooperation with the ICTY.

In a news release after the suspension of talks with the EU, Tadic said that this was a very difficult time for Serbia. "The government's failure to meet its obligations [to the ICTY and EU] weakens our negotiating position in the talks on the future status" of Kosovo, the statement read. "In addition, the EU's decision to suspend the negotiations with our country benefits the supporters of the disintegration of the state union of Serbia and Montenegro, because it pushes a joint European prospect further away from us."

The government's failure to track Mladic down despite all its previous promises was harming Serbia's credibility in international relations, Tadic added. Kostunica has already felt the sting of his government's loss of face before the international community, a slap delivered by Carla Del Ponte, who accused the premier of deceiving her when he promised that Mladic would be in The Hague by the end of April. She said she was "misled when I was told at the end of March that the arrest of Mladic was a matter of days or weeks."

Following the suspension of the negotiations, Kostunica said in a brief press release that Mladic's support network had been broken up and that the general was now "hiding alone." However, if the search for Mladic does not yield any results soon, Kostunica may find himself in a very lonely place, alone against disgruntled coalition partners, the democratic opposition, an ever stronger ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, and impatient EU brass who will surely push Serbia into quiet isolation if Mladic is not found soon – all this in the midst of the referendum on Montenegrin independence and negotiations on Kosovo. Even if his government limps along for a few more months, very few people will envy the prime minister at this point.

More Information on International Justice
More Information on Ratko Mladic
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia


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