Despite US aid cutoff, Serbs no closer to cornering Mladic
In the musty headquarters of the Center for the Investigation of War Crimes Against Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, his portrait is prominently displayed on the wall behind Ljubisa Ristic's desk.
"My personal opinion is that he is a true soldier and a hero of the Serbian people," Ristic said. It is not clear how many other Serbs feel that way about Gen. Ratko Mladic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb army and chief executor of its "ethnic cleansing" campaign.
"I'd say 75 percent of the Serbs see him as a war hero," said Aleksandar Tijanic, who heads the state-run television network in Serbia. "But if you ask them if he should he go to The Hague to save the Serbs from more suffering, 75 percent would say yes."
Mladic, who has been charged with genocide by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, has been on the run since the collapse of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's regime in October 2000.
Last month, the European Union broke off talks with Belgrade aimed at preparing Serbia for EU membership after President Vojislav Kostunica's government missed another deadline for delivering Mladic. The U.S. followed suit this month, canceling a $7 million aid package to the Serbian government.
UN lawyer: He's in reach
Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, has claimed repeatedly that Mladic is in Serbia and within the reach of Belgrade authorities. She says the government lacks the political will to arrest him.
That appeared to be the case in February when there were feverish media reports that the general had been cornered at a hiding place near the Bosnian border.
"But instead of arresting him, they started negotiating with him," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst who publishes a widely respected newsletter.
The negotiations came to nothing. "And now they really don't know where he is," Grubacic said. "For this government, I think they prefer not to know." Vladan Batic, the former Yugoslav justice minister who ordered the extradition of Milosevic to The Hague in June 2001, agrees with Del Ponte that the present government lacks the political will to deliver Mladic.
"Kostunica was hoping that Mladic would surrender himself," Batic said. "He knows Mladic is our ticket to Europe, but he's afraid that if he gives up Mladic, he'll lose a lot of votes and won't be seen as a so-called patriot."
Batic, who heads a small opposition party and who retains good police and security contacts, believes Mladic is holed up at the Topcider military base, a large complex outside Belgrade that has an elaborate network of tunnels.
State TV boss Tijanic, who is close to Kostunica, disputes the Topcider theory and also the suggestion that Kostunica is afraid of arresting Mladic. "Today, Kostunica's government is willing to send him to The Hague, but they don't know where he is hiding," Tijanic said.
Citing the recent arrests of about a dozen people thought to be part of Mladic's support system, Tijanic claimed that Mladic has cut all of his contacts with the military and security forces and is hiding on his own. The international community's focus on Mladic has diverted attention from Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime political leader, also charged with genocide and still on the run. There are three explanations.
The first is The Hague's experience in prosecuting genocide cases, which argues that it is much easier to obtain a conviction against military officers, who answer to a chain of command, than it is against their political bosses. A second explanation is that Karadzic, who is believed to be in Bosnia, has done a better job hiding himself.
The last, based on a persistent rumor echoed by nearly every diplomat and expert in the Balkans, is that at the time of Dayton peace agreement, Karadzic cut a deal that he would completely withdraw from politics if authorities would not try too hard to find him. Little has been heard from him since.
A year ago, public opinion in Serbia was shaken by a video recording that came to light during the Milosevic trial. It shows members of an Interior Ministry death squad known as the Scorpions executing six handcuffed Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica, where more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995, allegedly on orders from Mladic.
Public opinion shaken
The video, shot by one of the participants, was shown on Serbian TV, and the government, for the first time, acknowledged that Serbs were guilty of atrocities. The killers, identifiable on the video, are being tried in Serbian courts.
Ristic, from the center for war crimes against Serbs, said the trials were appropriate but insisted that the Scorpion tape has not shaken his faith in Mladic's innocence.
"I was not there [Srebrenica], so I can't tell you whether he ordered anything or not. But after our clear-cut victory, it was not in Serbia's interest to do something like that," he said.
Milan Protic, a historian who served as Yugoslavia's first ambassador to the U.S. in the post-Milosevic era, said that only "stupid minds" in Serbia continue to view Mladic as a hero, but that it also is wrong for the EU and the U.S. to hold all of Serbia hostage to his arrest.
"He is an obsolete symbol, this dirty little Serbian commander from Bosnia," he said, "but the West is using him to complicate all kinds of things for Serbia."