The arrest of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade yesterday was another dose of welcome news in the Serbian corner of the Balkans. He was a primary architect of the vicious war in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. Under his leadership, Bosnian Serb military forces shelled civilians in Sarajevo. Karadzic's government created concentration camps for Muslim men that it wanted to remove from Serb-held areas of Bosnia. And it was on his watch that the massacres at Srebrenica occurred in the summer of 1995.
There are all sorts of interesting details about Karadzic 's life on the run that have been churned up over the past 24 hours or so. Karadzic was living in Belgrade, working undercover as doctor specializing in alternative medicine. He apparently disguised himself with little more than puffy white hair and a beard for the better part of 12 years.
But there are larger currents at work in the arrest of one of the three remaining prime fugitives for crimes committed in the bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia. Indeed, the apprehension of Karadzic is part of a bigger narrative that has played out this year in Serbia. It's a saga of how reformers in Serbia are -- just barely -- nudging ahead of nationalists who favor a return to the bad old days of war and isolation. It's also a tale of how some pressure from the United States and Europe (on arresting war criminals) has worked, and how pressure in other areas (such as Kosovo's status) has not been as successful.
It has been a turbulent year for the country. In early February, reformer Boris Tadic was narrowly reelected president. Less than two weeks later, Kosovo declared independence, leading to violent demonstrations in Belgrade, including vandalism against the U.S. Embassy. Serbia recalled its ambassadors from every country that recognized Kosovo's independence.
Bitterly contested parliamentary elections followed in May. The result was a near-deadlock between reformers who desire closer political and economic ties with Europe (but opposed Kosovo's independence) and nationalists who reject the West. It took over a month for the dust to settle, and what emerged was a coalition between the reformers and the former Socialist party.
The coalition -- which took power a scant two weeks ago -- is an uneasy one because the Socialists were the followers of late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who died in custody while on trial at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. (It's often referred to as the "Hague Tribunal" because of its location in that city.)
But the new government has wasted no time in taking positive steps to repair its relationship with Europe -- and move in the direction of joining the European Union.
On Sunday, Serbia's new foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, called for the return of the nation's ambassadors to European Union nations that had recognized Kosovo. And the arrest of Karadzic is a leap forward to meeting EU demands that Serbia apprehend its three remaining war criminals.
Discontents and Desires
After almost six months of political tumult, and two elections narrowly won by reformers, the opportunity for Serbia to build on this momentum and experience a transformative political moment has arrived. That could, however, be easier said than done.
The biggest hurdle for Serbia to clear is still the political will of its own people. Nationalist forces only just barely lost both elections. Anti-European and anti-American sentiment remains strong in Serbia.
The reform-Socialist coalition is so fragile that even an event such as Karazic's arrest must be carefully stage-managed. In announcing the arrest, for instance, the government was careful to provide the Socialist Party with the fig leaf of plausible deniability for its part in the capture -- lest its supporters be alienated. The Interior Ministry, controlled by the Socialists, formally disavowed any role in the operation.
Even the choice of Karadzic as the first to be arrested has the feeling of a test balloon. Karadzic's main constituency was in the Serbian portion of Bosnia. He was not a military officer, like his fellow indictee, Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic. Mladic is the key figure in the Srebrenica massacre, but he retains popularity in Bosnian and Serbian military and security circles that Karadzic never possessed. (The third fugitive, Goran Hadzic, was a political leader of Croatian Serbs who is accused of crimes against Croats during the war in that country.)
If the new Serbian government wanted a test case for how such an arrest would be taken in the country, Karadzic was the much safer choice.
A much bigger danger to a new roiling of Serbian politics is Kosovo. Kosovo's declaration of independence and its quick recognition by the United States and many countries in Europe caused a wave of massive discontent that extended even to many Serbs who are pro-Western in their orientation.
The new government has trod very carefully on the issue, both in its campaigning and its election -- publicly stating that it does not recognize Kosovo's independence and urging more dialogue and negotiation on the province's ultimate status.
If nationalists are looking to incite massive discontent in Serbia, exploiting any incident (or even creating one) in Kosovo seems a better bet than agitating over either Karadzic or Mladic.
Cash and Carry
So how can the United States and Europe build on the momentum of Karadzic's arrest? A good first move would be to take highly public steps to buttress the new government in ways that will make a difference in the lives of ordinary Serbs. Whether that is making it easier for young people to get visas to study abroad, or giving a green light to investors who might be made antsy by the politics of the region, the rewards need to do more than trickle down. Reducing the isolation felt by ordinary citizens and raising the standard of living is the best political aid that America and Europe can give.
American and European leaders also need to shift their rhetoric from accentuating the past to focusing on the future. Gloating over Karadzic's capture by figures such as former U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who brokered the 1995 Dayton Accords, is self-indulgent and unhelpful. (Holbrooke called Karadzic the "Osama bin Laden" of the Balkans, which is an inept comparison on multiple levels.) The past is something that should be tackled by courts and historians -- and the politicians of the region itself. The Balkans is a place already obsessed by its past. It needs more words directed to its future by American and European leaders.
Finally, the United States and Europe should be cautious about applying too much pressure for rapid reform, particularly on the issue of Kosovo. Those who advocated very tough measures against Serbia on war crimes are certainly feeling vindicated at the moment -- and there's no doubt that such pressure has finally yielded results. But the changed political situation in Serbia requires a slight but significant recalibration in approach. Seeing this moment as a time to increase pressure on the Serbian government to acknowledge Kosovo's independent status, for instance, would likely be a big mistake.
The problem of Kosovo isn't going anywhere. And Serbs won't accept its independence for a very long time, perhaps until they enter the European Union with Kosovo. But Karadzic -- and soon, hopefully, Mladic and Hadzic -- are going somewhere. The main responsibilities for the western countries that have pressed for their arrest is to see that they have speedy and fair trials for their crimes, and not to squander this new momentum.