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


Related Topics

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'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes