My meeting with monster Mladic
Ivor Roberts is surprised that the psychotic Serbian leader allowed himself to be taken alive
While none of the meetings I had with Serbian leaders during the Bosnian War could be described as pleasurable, some were less unpleasant than others. My only meeting with Ratko Mladic was, however, as grim and uncomfortable as it got.
I was running the British embassy in Belgrade at the time, early 1995, and at a meeting with Slobodan Milosevic had urged him to use his undoubted influence in Bosnia to rein in the Bosnian Serb army. Milosevic claimed that he was powerless; the Bosnian Serbs were no longer listening to him. Like Frankenstein's monster, they were out of control. He suggested I talk to General Mladic, then besieging Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities, directly to get my message across. I agreed and the meeting took place a few days later in Belgrade.
It was a disaster. My arguments met with no response other than a rant about the iniquities of Nato air strikes against his forces. We had three hours of fruitless discussion with no progress made. Some three months later he seized hundreds of UN peacekeepers and took them hostage. A month after that he overran the UN safe haven of Srebrenica and massacred some 8,000 Muslim men and boys, the worst war crime on European soil since the Second World War.
Why was such a psychotic monster able to evade capture for 16 years after his indictment for war crimes and genocide in November 1995? Part of the answer lies in the support network he enjoyed from some of his wartime colleagues, part in the half-hearted attempts by the early post-Milosevic governments in Serbia to conduct a proper search. And part, it must be said, was the fault of the Nato force in Bosnia in the late Nineties, when Mladic was living there, who were unwilling to risk their troops in what would have been a bloody confrontation at the heavily defended Bosnian Serb military headquarters.
It was only with the arrival of a pro-western government led by President Boris Tadic that a serious effort has been made to round up the Mladic support network and pursue intelligence leads assiduously. The prize? EU admission for Serbia. The failure to capture and hand over Mladic to the Hague tribunal on Yugoslav war crimes had become the single biggest obstacle and this kind of strict conditionality on the progress of Serbia's application was becoming an intolerably frustrating roadblock for a government which was growing unpopular as economic conditions failed to improve and the Kosovo impasse left many Serbs feeling humiliated and angry.
The paradox is that while the Tadic government can expect to be rewarded by the EU and the international community, in the short term it could become even more unpopular internally. Already his nationalist opponents are circling, denouncing his 'treason' in arresting a Serbian hero. According to opinion polls over 50 per cent of the Serbian people oppose Mladic's extradition to The Hague while over 78 per cent wouldn't have given away his hideout if they had known it.
So why is a mass murderer regarded as a hero in some Serb quarters? When multi-ethnic Bosnia declared itself independent of Serb dominated Yugoslavia in early 1992 and the Bosnian War broke out, the Yugoslav government led by Slobodan Milosevic fed the Serbs in both Yugoslavia and Bosnia an unremitting diet of propaganda arguing that the Bosnian Serbs would be massacred in an independent Bosnia dominated by the majority Muslims and Croats.
The only answer, according to the propaganda line, was for the Bosnian Serb army (helped by their Serbian brothers in arms) to conquer as much of Bosnia as it could and ethnically cleanse those areas under its control of Muslims and Croats. The rest is bloody history. So while the rest of us saw Mladic as a key player in and executor of a criminal enterprise, for many Serbs in Bosnia and Serbia he was defending the Bosnian Serbs from genocide. A propaganda success of which Goebbels would have been proud. And it still has resonance today.
So today's Serb leader has a delicate balancing act. He needs a rapid return on his 'investment' from Europe if he is not to find that he loses the next elections to the nationalists. It is an election which will decide whether Serbia really does have a western orientation.
As for Mladic, it is surprising that he allowed himself to be taken alive. One of his closest colleagues told me that Mladic had instructed his bodyguards to shoot him rather than allow him to be captured. Perhaps it is a sign of how his supporters had faded away or of his frailty -- there are reports of his having had two strokes.
But while Serbian democrats are hoping for their Bin Laden moment from the capture of Mladic, the relatives of his victims in Bosnia will be looking for their long delayed days in court. Milosevic cheated his victims by dying with his trial incomplete. The mothers of Srebrenica will want to see the butcher of Bosnia convicted of his crimes before he rots in hell.
Sir Ivor Roberts, President of Trinity College, Oxford, is a former British ambassador to Ireland, Italy and Yugoslavia and editor of the new edition of 'Satow's Diplomatic Practice'