Bosnian Serb wartime General Ratko Mladic reportedly considered taking his own life rather than surrendering to Serbian authorities, but he is certainly not regretting his decision now. He’s getting the top-notch medical care that he desperately needs at The Hague detention center, and Bosnian Serbs have offered to foot the bill for his defense.
“I made a mistake [in] not having killed myself. But since I am here, I demand that you fulfill my requests and provide me with adequate medical care and a lawyer, and allow my family to visit me,” Serbia’s “Blic” daily quoted Mladic as telling officials of The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
When Mladic arrived at The Hague detention unit, it was to a red carpet welcome by other indicted war criminals, who honored him with a traditional Bosnian lunch. A team of doctors examined him, determining that his health had been seriously neglected, and set out to plan new treatments. He had six bad teeth pulled in one day. Feeling newly refreshed and in good spirits after taking stock of his situation, he demanded fresh strawberries.
More significantly, Mladic’s arrest lends him financial stability. On June 6, Serbian authorities unfroze his monthly military pension (800 euros), to which he had not had access since 2005 and which has since been accumulating in his account. Mladic had formally applied for the funds to be released after his arrest following 16 years on the run, and authorities authorized his son to withdraw the money.
It’s telling that Mladic ever received a Serbian military pension, as he was a Bosnian Serb military commander, not a member of the Serbian military. Still, Serbia continued to pay his pension and health and social insurance contributions through the so-called 30 Personnel Center of the Yugoslav Army.
It is odd that an indicted war criminal, wanted on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity (including genocide for his key role in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre), should continue to receive a monthly pension at all.
On top of all this, the Bosnian Serb leadership is willing to pay for his defense at the ICTY. Officials in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska have announced that they will help fund Mladic’s defense, adding insult to injury for the victims of Mladic’s war crimes, who in essence will now be paying for their aggressor’s legal costs through their taxes. The Republika Srpska war veterans’ association and some other radical nongovernmental organizations are also seeking additional private contributions.
Bosnian Serb opposition parties have opposed the measure, but not for the reasons one would expect: They say the fund (presently at 50,000 euros) is not large enough and that the entity should request at least 10 million euros in credit from outside to boost Mladic’s defense.
Officials from the wartime ruling Serb Democratic Party (SDS), led by Radovan Karadzic, have suggested that Republika Srpska finance the defense of all Bosnian Serb war crimes indictees in an effort to also defend, on a broader scale, the nature of the Bosnian war out of which the entity of Republika Srpska was created.
Some indicted war criminals, however, have balked at this idea, fearing they would then lose access to ICTY legal aid.
Still, state financing of legal defense and logistical and moral support for indicted war criminals is nothing new in the region.
Rewards For Surrendering
In late 2004, after failing to arrest a single indicted war criminal since the end of the war, the government of Republika Srpska decided to hand out financial rewards to suspects who surrendered. The move was followed by a similar law in Serbia proper, which regulates pensions to indicted war criminals.
Significant segments of the Croat, Bosnian, and Serbian populations continue to view their very own war criminals as heroes ... Reconciliation remains a long way off.
The laws were intended to bring in a few lower-profile war crimes suspects at a time when both Serbia and Republika Srpska were expecting to be penalized by the international community for their lack of cooperation with the ICTY.
The regulations produced some results, though information on how many suspects surrendered in return for cash was never made public. However, in 2004, only four indicted war criminals were transferred to the ICTY, while the following year that number rose to 20.
Serbia offered the families of war crimes suspects who surrendered 25,000 euros in cash, a monthly 690 euro pension and four plane tickets to The Hague for prison visits. Republika Srpska has also been very generous, granting scholarships to the children of indicted war criminals and doubling pension payments to their families.
According to Serbian media reports, the Serbian government offered more generous inducements to higher-ranked officers. Allegedly, Bosnian Serb General Vujadin Popovic was given a bonus of $1 million when he turned himself in six years ago. Mladic’s family told media at that time that the Serbian government offered him $5 million to surrender, but he declined.
Authorities in Croatia and Bosnia’s Bosniak- and Croat-dominated federation entity have also not been averse to publicly honoring and lending a helping hand to their indicted war criminals.
The late Bosnian wartime army commander Rasim Delic, for instance, was sentenced to three years in prison for war crimes committed against Bosnian Serbs and Croats but was welcomed at the Sarajevo airport upon his release last year to great fanfare by religious and political leaders. (Delic passed away in April 2010.)
Viewed As Heroes
Meanwhile, the Croatian government is planning to put together a team of legal experts to help with the appeal process for generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, who were convicted in late April and sentenced to 24 and 18 years in prison, respectively.
What this most clearly demonstrates is that significant segments of the Croat, Bosnian, and Serbian populations continue to view their very own war criminals as heroes, and by their financial support of them are financing the ideas that led to war, if not the war itself. Reconciliation remains a long way off. Both Croatia and Bosnia are contemplating a renewal of legal action against Serbia for its involvement in the Yugoslav conflicts.
As for fresh strawberries and pulled teeth…This is all rather flippant and designed to entertain, but it is what interests the public, what fuels anger and keeps it ripe. The Bosnian Serb government’s very public debate about how much money is available and how much more can be scrounged up to defend Mladic is also designed to keep the public’s interest directed toward the wartime past. These are the only issues that nationalist authorities can capitalize upon to remain in office, the only issues that distract voters time and again from pressing economic realities.
Keeping the Mladic arrest as controversial as possible is useful to nationalists from all three ethnic groups, who rely on ethnic tensions for power.
Anes Alic is the Sarajevo-based executive director of ISA Intel, a senior analyst for ISN Security Watch, and a contributor to Oxford Analytica. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL