Radovan Karadzic falls victim to soft power


Radovan Karadzic’s disguise was elaborate, but he didn’t spend the past 13 years hiding from the Serbian authorities. They knew where he was all along. Only 10 days after the government changed, the police plucked him off the 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 to “cleanse” non-Serbs from the Serbian-inhabited parts of former Yugoslavia were safe from the U.N. tribunal in The Hague, including Karadzic and his chief collaborator in the murder of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims, Gen. 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 to “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.

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 10 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 Serb war criminals. Led by Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic, it has already “found” Radovan Karadzic, and before long it may also find 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 EU: the immense attraction of belonging to a continentwide organization that really does deliver such benefits to its members. It’s a cumbersome organization and frequently criticized for good reasons, but it offers Serbia a way back into civilized 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. Karadzic in chains will have to do.

Gwynne Dyer’s recent book, “After Iraq,” was published in London by Yale University Press.