Global Policy Forum

Serbia Hopes Mladic Plan Will Impress Brussels


By Aleksandar Roknic and Dragana Nikolic *

Balkan Insight
July 6, 2006

Belgrade aims to restart dialogue with EU with new show of determination to find the wanted general.

Serbia has launched a last-ditch "action plan" to boost cooperation with the Hague tribunal, in a final effort to persuade the international community of its genuine determination to cooperate over war crimes. The government drafted the plan last week, and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is expected to unveil it shortly in Brussels. It envisages closer coordination between military and civilian secret services, especially in their pursuit of the most wanted war crimes suspect of all, the former Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic.

The plan forms the centrepiece of a government drive to restart stalled talks with Brussels on a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA, which the European Union suspended in May after Belgrade failed to deliver Mladic to the Hague court. However, some analysts say the action plan may fall foul of the notorious rivalries dogging the various security agencies - and the continued presence within them of elements highly sympathetic to Mladic's cause. If the government fails to unblock the deadlock with the EU by the end of September, a key member of the coalition, the reformist G17 party, has said it will pull out of parliament and government. Their deputies have already prepared their resignations.

The government's last organised attempt to track down Hague fugitives was in late 2005, when Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, suggested a breakthrough was near in the hunt for Mladic and his wartime political master, Radovan Karadzic. The media claimed officials had even intercepted a telephone conversation between Mladic and one of his helpers. Soon after, in mid-January, police detained the first person to be charged with of helping Mladic evade justice, a retired Bosnian Serb army colonel, Jovo Djogo. This case was declared a state secret and the details were not allowed to be published.

Up to 11 others have since been detained on the same charges - mostly retired officers of the Army of Republika Srpska, VRS, and the Army of Serbia-Montenegro, VSCG. Most are still in detention, awaiting trial once investigations have been completed. The spring saw two more failed attempts to track down Mladic, firstly at his house in the Belgrade residential quarter of Banovo Brdo on May 5, and two days later in his country house in the village of Bobovske Bare near Valjevo, about 80 kilometres from the capital.

Commentators in Belgrade say the government's action plan for apprehending Mladic is modelled on the Croatian example, which ended in the arrest in Spain in December 2005 of the country's last key suspect, former army general Ante Gotovina. The handover of Gotovina withdrew the last obstacle to the start of accession negotiations between Croatia and the EU. Croatia's action plan, built on the widest possible political consensus, was believed to have been coordinated by the country's chief prosecutor, Mladen Bajic. The involvement of foreign intelligence agents in this operation was also seen as crucial. The pre-requisites for the success of the Croatian action plan, said diplomatic sources, were excellent coordination between the various intelligence services and smooth communications with the Hague tribunal. This led the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, to state in public - before Gotovina was actually extradited - that Croatia was cooperating fully with the court.

Few of these conditions appear to apply to Serbia, raising doubts as to whether Croatia's success will be replicated. Firstly, war crimes prosecutor Vukcevic has been sidelined from events since last year, removing a key player from the equation. "Vukcevic has been bypassed when it comes to the coordination efforts," a source from the war crimes prosecutor's office told Balkan Insight. The source said that this key institution has not been included in the operation to hunt down suspects, and that this went against the direct wishes of Del Ponte and her office. The source said the government had not even invited the war crime prosecutor's office to attend cabinet meetings on the issue of cooperation with the Hague court. As a result, they knew nothing of the action plan.

At the moment, it remains unclear who will coordinate the activities of the intelligence services in the hunt for Mladic and other fugitives. Given the existing rivalry between them, there are strong doubts about whether these agencies can coordinate properly. A National Security Council, SNB, which is tasked with coordinating the activities of all security services and ensuring that they cooperate with the tribunal, has been formed but is not operational. The main stumbling-block is over who will chair this council – Kostunica or his chief political rival, Serbian president Boris Tadic.

Meanwhile, Aleksandar Radic, a military expert, said the age-old conflict between the military and civilian intelligence agencies rumbles on - and will dog any attempt to finally capture Mladic. Radic claimed that while the BIA, the civilian intelligence service, was close to Kostunica, the military intelligence service was headed by people allied to Tadic's Democrat Party. Zoran Dragisic, of the Faculty of Security Studies, noted that the problem of overlapping agencies was likely to hamper such a complex task as locating Mladic. "This problem could be serious because we have different security systems inherited from the former state," he said. "Coordination between the security services would have to be better than it is now."

An additional problem is that the process of "lustration" – identifying and removing from office supporters of the late Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. Elements sympathetic to the former regime remain embedded at all levels of the intelligence services and the army. "The question remains whether people in these services are still close to the Hague suspects and are blocking state efforts to find their hideouts," said Daniel Sunter, of the think-tank Euro Atlantic Initiative. Serbian officials can often be heard saying that Mladic is always one step ahead of the search party. But one reason for this, Sunter suggests, is the strong support Mladic enjoys from informers within the system.

Vladan Zivulovic, head of the Atlantic Council of Serbia, told Balkan Insight that the regular army was also "full of cadres from Bosnia" who were "turned to Mladic as much as possible". "They will definitely protect him, voluntarily or not. He has also the support of his fellow-countrymen in the military security agency. One can hardly expect any favours from them," added Zivulovic. Dragisic said he believed Mladic "probably gets some support" from the very same services that are supposed to be heading up the search operation. "I presume that in these [intelligence] services, he has some circles that are helping him and I think that for many reasons the services should get these people out of the way," Dragisic told Balkan Insight.

Dragisic said it was also important to involve foreign intelligence services as much as possible, for sound pragmatic reasons. "By including foreign intelligence officers in the search, the Serbian government would alleviate some of the political pressure it is exposed to because of its failure to extradite Mladic," he said. "Allowing foreign intelligence services to join the search means sharing responsibility for this." A source close to Kostunica confirmed that British intelligence had already tried to assist Serbia in its hunt for Mladic. But security experts say a greater involvement on the part of foreign services is needed - and ought not to be a problem if Serbia has nothing to hide and genuinely wants to solve the Hague problem.

Dragisic added that much will depend now on the outcome of Kostunica's visit on July 15 to Brussels, when it will become clear whether the EU will support the Serbian action plan, or dismiss it as "yet another scam". Officials in Brussels are divided over the issue. Some are leaving space for manoeuvre, saying the future of EU talks will depend on Kostunica's presentation of the action plan in Brussels. Others say the EU is not about to relax its condition that Mladic must be handed over in order for SAA talks to restart. "The EU will want to wait for the word from The Hague before it takes any decisions," said one source.

Another foreign diplomat in Belgrade who wanted to remain anonymous agreed that the result was all that counted. "One has to remember that Croatia delivered Gotovina at the end. Without the result, their plan would not have counted," he told Balkan Insight.

Nicholas Whyte of the International Crisis Group said the EU was unlikely to make an independent decision on a SAA with Belgrade without the consent of The Hague. "The EU will not override The Hague's judgement," Whyte told Balkan Insight. The EU, in other words, will be sympathetic to Kostunica, but without making commitments. One Brussels diplomatic source told Balkan Insight that the EU wanted some kind of movement on the Mladic issue. "We want to give the Serbian government an opportunity to demonstrate its cooperation with The Hague," this source said. "The ball is in Serbia's corner."

About the Authors: Aleksandar Roknic is a journalist with the Belgrade-based daily Danas. Dragana Nikolic Solomon is BIRN Serbia director. Balkan Insight is BIRN's online publication.

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


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