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A Master Manipulator Whose End Has Come

Radovan Karadzic in Pale in 1993, next to fellow UN indictee Ratko Mladic (left)
Radovan Karadzic in Pale in 1993, next to fellow UN indictee Ratko Mladic (left)
In the autumn of 1991, Radovan Karadzic was invited to appear in a live broadcast of Bosnian television's main news program in Sarajevo. Pressed by journalists to provide evidence to back his claims that Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina were being discriminated against, Karadzic gave the name of an ethnic-Serbian family in Zenica that had purportedly been evicted by its Muslim neighbors.

He gave the Serbian family's precise address, and even the floor on which they were living. And it was all correct -- aside from the minor fact that the family had not been evicted at all. A television crew from the Sarajevo station visited the family and aired a feature about them. But it was too late; Karadzic has achieved his aim.

Such tactics were typical of Karadzic. A psychiatrist by profession, he knew a lot about how to manipulate people.

Karadzic was chosen Bosnian Serb leader by the Belgrade-based experts in the Serbian Academy of Sciences in July 1990. It was an effective choice. His opponents at the first session of the Serbian Democratic Party were quickly marginalized, and some were even arrested by Karadzic loyalists. His popularity skyrocketed thanks to massive support from Belgrade-based Serbian national television.

Everything he needed for a successful career came from Belgrade: advice, money, intelligence, and military support. He was well aware that all this wasn't enough without media support. So he began to eliminate the electronic media that might challenge him or give his fellow Serbs information or reports that he hadn't vetted.

So, in 1991, a Yugoslav Army unit occupied the broadcast studios of Bosnian television in Sarajevo and turned its signal over to its counterpart in Belgrade. The Bosnian cities in which most Serbs lived could not receive any other television broadcasts. The residents there were highly vulnerable to manipulation.

Karadzic's language was aggressive, and he rejected facts that appeared to contradict his beliefs. When unwanted facts cropped up, he quickly turned the discussion to speculation and innuendo. When opponents stuck to such facts, Karadzic went on the attack.

I remember one story early in the war. A Muslim paramilitary soldier, seeking to prevent the killings of civilians by the Yugoslav Army, set up explosives at the Visegrad Dam and issued a statement asking for a telephone conversation with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic. He threatened to blow up the dam if his conversation was not broadcast on live television.

I was the head of Sarajevo television at the time, and Karadzic called me. "Mr. Pejic," he said, "if you decide to put this conversation on the air, I will bomb your transmitter!"

I was concerned, nevertheless, about the villages that were threatened with disaster if the dam was destroyed. I decided to broadcast the conversation. Minutes after it aired, Karadzic's forces began shelling the broadcast center. The dam was not blown up. The lives of civilians in the valley were saved. Our transmitter was heavily damaged.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina's parliament in 1991, Karadzic said, "Muslims will disappear from the Earth." The statement elicited a furor, which was Karadzic's intent. He wanted to radicalize all ethnic groups and make multiethnic coexistence impossible.

When a Croatian Serb leader was arrested, Karadzic threatened violence if he was not released. When a sniper was captured in Sarajevo and accused of killing civilians, Karadzic justified the murders: "We had to attack the Muslims to prevent them from attacking Serbs."

Karadzic always spoke in terms of "us" against "them." He was a masterful polarizer, embodying a deeply engrained ethnic division.

He invited me to dinner once in late 1990, in an obvious bid to persuade me to join his camp. When I refused, he immediately changed course and publicly accused me of desiring the collapse of Yugoslavia. This was typical of Radovan Karadzic: If you are not subordinate to him, you are his enemy.

Karadzic had a sort of grudging respect for other ethnic groups that coalesced into camps similar to the one he had formed with Bosnian Serbs. He saw such groups as vindication of his own ethnically based worldview, and as evidence that Serbs had to follow him in order to secure their rights.

What he hated passionately, however, were the Serbs who refused to join him. Anyone who refused to be reduced to a mere ethnic identity in an endless primitive blood feud was his real enemy.

In the end, Karadzic miscalculated. His dream of uniting all Serbs in a single state failed, and now they are scattered across five independent countries. His closest associates ended up in The Hague or as fugitives in hiding. Slowly but surely, his fellow Serbs are moving away from his radical nationalist ideology.

All eyes should be on Serbia now. It will be instructive to see how the Serbian leadership handles the situation now that Karadzic has been arrested. How many people will come out to protest? The radical nationalists are outraged, but will anyone join them? Bosnian Serb leaders have called Karadzic's arrest a relief. The Socialist Party in Serbia has distanced itself from the radicals, saying it will not "allow anyone to manipulate them at a time when all parties are in favor of cooperation with The Hague." My feeling is that the reaction will demonstrate that Karadzic is of little importance to them anymore. Life has moved on.

Nenad Pejic was program director of Sarajevo Television before and at the beginning of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is now associate director of broadcasting at RFERL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL