Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mladic Remains On The Run

Another anniversary has come and gone in Srebrenica. Fourteen years on from the massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, a ceremony has been held for more than 500 of the victims whose remains have recently been identified. But the man who commanded the Bosnian Serb forces who carried out the killings, General Ratko Mladic, is still at large.

The Mladic situation is a big problem for the Serbian government. Put simply, until he's in custody, they can't even talk to the EU about joining, and that's what Serbia and the Serbian economy badly needs. Nearby Slovenia, which was largely unaffected by the 1992-95 war, has been in the union since 2004. It has prospered, and people there earn roughly double their counterparts in Serbia. Croatia, having finally arrested all of its alleged war criminals, is about to join too. With an already strong tourism industry in that country, soon Serbia will be significantly worse off than most of its neighbours, and that's a big political problem for the Serbian government.

In the past, a mixture of Serb national pride and the legacy of wartime propaganda meant that Mladic and his fellow fugitives enjoyed considerable support form ordinary Serbian people. That has helped them stay in hiding, and made it politically difficult for past Serbian governments to arrest them. But as memories of the war fade, and the Serbian economy continues to fall behind other nations in the area, that support is ebbing away. The arrest of Mladic's old partner Radovan Karadzic passed without too much trouble. When the authorities finally catch up with Mladic, the same will surely be true. Ordinary Serbs now largely realise their future lies within the EU, not in the old world of Serb nationalism.

So if the political and public will in Serbia now exists to arrest Mladic, one problem remains. Actually finding him. The hills of western Serbia and the Serb-controlled part of eastern Bosnia contain plenty of remote hiding places. And General Mladic still has support among the men he used to command. So even if NATO or Serb forces find out where he's hiding, any military operation could finish in an horrific bloodbath halfway up a mountain, with a reasonable chance Mladic would be able to slip away. The most likely ways for the authorities to detain Mladic are either if they get lucky and literally just run into him one day, or if someone betrays him for reward money. Until that day, Serbia's dreams of joining the EU will remain as dreams.

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