This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal Europe on July 29, 2008.
The arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic last Monday in Belgrade has the West in a celebratory mood. And rightly so — the jailing of such a vile criminal should be welcomed without qualification. Mr. Karadzic’s ruthless nationalism and policy of intimidation, rape and massacre of non-Serbs led to thousands of civilian casualties. His legacy is a still-precarious Balkan region, with the semifailed state of Bosnia festering at its core.
But to many European leaders and opinion makers, Mr. Karadzic’s arrest also signals a profound shift within Serbia itself: the triumph of President Boris Tadic’s pro-Western government over the nationalist bloc of ex-prime minister Vojislav Kostunica after this May’s parliamentary elections. Serbia, Western leaders proclaim, has shown its determination to start down the path to European Union membership. This is only partially true.
While Mr. Tadic’s ultimate goal is to get Serbia into the EU, arresting Mr. Karadzic has put his government on a knife’s edge. As long as the plaudits continue and Serbia basks in Western approval, Mr. Tadic’s reign is assured. But once the party ends, he may find himself ousted from power — or worse — by the dark forces which still dominate Serbia.
Ever since the Serbs started three successive wars in the span of a decade (Croatia in 1991, Bosnia in 1992 and Kosovo in 1999), the goings-on in Belgrade have been murky at best. What is often overlooked about Slobodan Milosevic’s blood-soaked rule is how profoundly he enmeshed organized crime into the Serbian body politic.
Mafia clans profiteered handsomely during Milosevic’s wars and continued to operate brazenly for many years thereafter. They assassinated various members of the political opposition in the early 2000s, including former Serbian president Ivan Stambolic. The true extent of the infestation became apparent in March 2003 when reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the man responsible for extraditing Milosevic to The Hague, was murdered in broad daylight in Belgrade.
Though organized crime no longer enjoys as much freedom as it once did in Serbia, it is still quite powerful. Mr. Karadzic’s ability to evade capture for 13 years implies a vast network of conspirators who succeeded in shuttling him throughout the region unmolested by the authorities. The fact that Mr. Karadzic was apprehended immediately after a Tadic loyalist replaced a Kostunica patsy at the head of the security services further suggests the complicity of the departing government in these arrangements.
All these things point to a turbulent and potentially violent period ahead.
Mr. Tadic’s “For a European Serbia” coalition won a plurality in the May elections, but with only 38% of the vote. Just over 41% of the electorate cast their votes for the various nationalist parties. Mr. Tadic was only able to form a government by allying himself with Milosevic’s old party, the Socialists, who promptly denied having anything to do with Mr. Karadzic’s arrest.
The Serbian Radical Party has called for mass protests today in hopes of re-creating the instability generated by February demonstrations against Kosovo’s independence. Vjerica Radeta, a Radical member of parliament, went so far as to directly threaten Mr. Tadic during a press conference Friday, calling him a “cowardly dictator” and invoking the fate of Djindjic. Mr. Tadic’s office has received several anonymous death threats.
Viewed in this light, Mr. Tadic’s gambit is not so much a sign of any tectonic shifts in the political landscape as a Hail Mary pass to the West. With elections having been so close and inconclusive, he must have calculated that incremental pro-European reforms would be stalemated in the deeply riven legislature, eventually leading to the fall of his government. The bold move of arresting Mr. Karadzic has forced the ugliest elements of Serbian nationalism into the open, where he can only hope they will be rejected by the Serbian people.
To solidify his hold on power, Mr. Tadic needs to show immediate positive results to a skeptical electorate for turning in someone many still consider a national hero. He is signaling that he might be able to do more if Brussels or Washington can give him something to work with.
Less clear is what this “something” could possibly be. There is talk in Brussels of fast-tracking Serbia to EU accession. But that would also require Serbia, at a minimum, to extradite Gen. Ratko Mladic, the butcher of Srebrenica, who happens to be another popular Serbian underground hero. In addition, Serbia’s institutions are rife with corruption, and several years of difficult political and economic adjustments are inevitable if it hopes to be integrated into the Western sphere.
At a minimum, the EU and the U.S. ought to consider dramatically increasing foreign aid to prop up Mr. Tadic in the near term. If his government survives, Western investment could also start revitalizing Serbia’s battered economy. The tough economic times in large part sustains the feelings of nationalist resentment driving politics there today. It’s a long shot fraught with difficulty, but one worth trying.
One thing is certain, however: Mr. Tadic has stuck his neck out for the West. When Western elites are done clinking their glasses, they shouldn’t forget him.
-Damir Marusic is editor of Doublethink Online and associate publisher of The American Interest.