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

Comment

Share
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

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Advisor - (HR, L&D) - Rugby

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and well established busi...

Recruitment Genius: Product Owner - Business Analyst

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Product Owner/Business Analyst is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Quality Technician

£28800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Administrative Assistant / Order Fulfilment

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join a thrivi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea