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Analysis From Washington -- Will Karadzic Ever Be Arrested?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, July 15 (RFE/RL) -- Western governments and media outlets greeted the decision of the International War Crimes Tribunal last Thursday to issue worldwide arrest warrants for Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his army commander, General Ratko Mladic.

But beneath the praise were three nagging worries: First, will the populations of NATO countries actually be willing to put their troops, the only force that could actually do the job, at risk to achieve this worthy goal?

Second, will an attempt to arrest these two spark new and broader violence in Bosnia and make the holding of elections there this year virtually impossible?

And third, will efforts to arrest these men divide Russia and the West and thus have as an unintended consequence the further worsening of the increasingly clouded international climate?

As to the first question, there is probably more popular support for moves to arrest those charged with war crimes than most governments have assumed. NATO commanders on the scene have argued that their men should not be put at risk through an attempt to arrest Karadzic and Mladic. And many political figures in their respective capitals have echoed these concerns.

But polling data suggest that the populations of Western countries may be far more willing to take these risks than their political elites assumed. A poll released last Wednesday of 1,227 Americans by the University of Maryland found that 70 percent of them were in favor of arresting Bosnian Serb leaders charged with war crimes even if such a step put U.S. troops at risk.

Significantly, this figure was higher than the number of Americans who back the idea of keeping American forces in Bosnia after the end of the year (59 percent).

But even if there is possible support for such a move, might it not spark more violence in Bosnia? The odds of that are unfortunately very high, but they may not be as high as some have assumed. The NATO-led forces now have such overwhelming firepower that the Bosnian Serbs have not chosen to challenge them in the past, even though many analysts had predicted precisely such attacks would take place.

As long as the NATO coalition forces remain, that situation would likely continue.

But it is certainly the case that even limited violence could torpedo the elections that the U.S. and other major powers want to see held later this year. And postponement of the elections in turn could force the outside powers to keep their troops in Bosnia longer than they now intend. That, as the Maryland University poll suggests, would be very unpopular at home.

Perhaps the most troubling question of all, however, is the third: will attempts to arrest these men divide the coalition of NATO countries and Russia? Tragically, the answer may be yes, and the consequences of that could exacerbate growing tensions between Moscow and the West.

In recent weeks, Russian diplomats and generals have gone on record in opposition to any moves by the NATO-led coalition to arrest the two Bosnian Serb leaders charged with war crimes.

The diplomats have suggested that any such move would require a new decision not by NATO but by the U.N. Security Council where Moscow has a veto. The generals have been even more brusque in their dismissal of a possible NATO move to take Karadzic and company into custody.

Sadly, even though Russian representatives approved the worldwide arrest warrants last week, neither they nor their Western partners took any immediate steps to implement them.

That sets the stage for a further diplomatic tug of war in which Moscow will likely drag its feet as it has in the past and the West under pressure from its citizenry will want to take action more quickly.

As a result, no one can say for sure when or even if Karadzic and Mladic will be arrested, but one thing is clear: the decision to go after the accused authors of war crimes in Bosnia will have a broad impact, even if these two men are never brought to justice.