Marcus Tanner: A coup that has shown Serbia at its best and worst

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Serbia's well-timed decision to "find" Ratko Mladic on the day that the EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton, was in Belgrade, pressing Serbia on the issue of the UN war crimes fugitive, reflects the outcome of a prolonged tug-of-war in Belgrade about what the country stood to gain or lose from handing him over.

The embattled centrist Democrats, led by President Boris Tadic, have become desperate recently to find an ace to play in the 2012 elections – which most polls show they are set to lose.

But if Serbia can now fast track its way to gaining EU candidate status as a result of delivering Mladic to The Hague, it could – just – turn out to be a vote winner.

But the calculation remains a fine one. Hard-line nationalists, loyal to the ideas of Slobodan Milosevic, remain a powerful force, even in the modern, democratic Serbia of today. In spite of various waves of reforms and purges of the security departments, they remain thick on the ground in the police, the secret services and the military – as well as having a permanent bastion in the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, which polls consistently as the "most trusted" institution in Serbia.

Together, these all form the ring that has helped keep the former Bosnian Serb general safe all these years – not, it turns out, hiding in Russia, Belarus, or Kazakhstan, as Serbian officials were wont to suggest to foreign interlocutors over the years, but up the road from Belgrade, in the heart of Serbia itself.

Crossing those murky forces that seem to run so much of Serbia in the background is not an act to be undertaken lightly. Serbia's former centrist prime minster, Zoran Djindjic, was assassinated in front of the Belgrade parliament in 2003 for what many saw as a foolhardy attempt to take on the "state within a state".

Even today, the degree to which Serbia's elected officials are actually in control of security departments that are nominally subordinate to them remains questionable.

Belgrade's other big problem in relation to the handover of Mladic is the degree to which those hard-line nationalists have a lock on public opinion. Officials were quick to suggest yesterday that the small size of street protests over Mladic's capture showed how little support he enjoyed. But opinion polls suggest these public protests are not a real barometer of the state of feeling in the country about Mladic and his intolerant, racist ideology.

It is true that much depends on the wording of questions put to people, but taking surveys in aggregate, the consensus is that about half the population either doesn't believe that Mladic did anything particularly wrong in Srebrenica or elsewhere in Bosnia, or views the allegations against him as a pack of Western and Bosnian Muslim lies. Such views are not exclusive to Serbia, of course. Most people in Croatia and Kosovo have the same rosy views about their own UN-indicted war criminals.

The true test of public opinion in Serbia about Mladic's arrest will come next spring, in the general election. If Serbia really has "turned a page", as so many diplomats now optimistically claim, the voters will reward Tadic's Democrats by giving them another chance.

If the opposition nationalist Progressives win, on the other hand, it will suggest that – in and among all the other economic issues in the election – the decision to pay the Mladic "card" was a gamble that did not come off.

Marcus Tanner covered the Balkan wars for 'The Independent'

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