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The Decidedly Uneventful 'Capture' Of Ratko Mladic

Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic shortly after his arrest last week
Former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic shortly after his arrest last week
There were several possible scenarios floating around about what might happen when Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic would finally be arrested.

Mladic, one of the world's most-wanted war crimes suspects, was indicted by The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1995 for genocide in the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica and other crimes.

The actual event of his arrest on May 26, however, failed to meet those expectations.

Serbian security agencies and foreign intelligence services warned of the possibility of a major shoot-out with Mladic's bodyguards, while members of his family were sure that Mladic was the sort of man who would rather take his own life than be captured.

Decidedly Unheroic

In the end, Serbian authorities arrested what appears to be a very elderly man, barely able to walk, with no entourage to protect him.

The enfeebled and decidedly unheroic Mladic was armed with two pistols but did not resist arrest.

Media footage showed that he had difficulty speaking. After 16 years "on the run," he was still carrying his original identification documents. He was not in hiding.

Mladic was captured in the village of Lazarevo, near the town of Zrenjanin in northern Serbia, after an anonymous tip-off to police was made by someone who had seen a man who looked like Mladic and was carrying documents bearing that name, though the man identified himself to the anonymous caller as "Milorad Komodic."

Aside from using an assumed name, Mladic made no attempt to disguise his appearance.

Timing Was Of The Essence

At a press conference following the arrest, Serbian President Boris Tadic said that British and U.S. intelligence had assisted Serbian security forces in the operation to find Mladic, which had picked up pace over the course of the past two weeks.

Timing is of the essence in such events, and in that respect, the arrest of Mladic was fortuitous for Serbian officialdom.

This TV grab reportedly shows former Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic (center) dancing at a wedding while he was supposedly in hiding.

It comes precisely as Serbia's EU membership candidacy is under threat. Indeed, Mladic's arrest took place on the same day that EU foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton showed up in Belgrade, most likely to remind Serbian authorities about the importance of arresting Mladic if the country hoped to make any progress toward EU accession.

The arrest also comes on the heels of a report by Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor at the ICTY, reprimanding Serbia last week for failing to do enough to secure Mladic's capture.

Mladic's Arrest Could Secure EU Green Light

Brammertz was scheduled to address a debate early next month in the UN Security Council about Serbian efforts to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal. Brammertz's report was expected to minimize Serbia's chance of being granted EU candidate-member status.

As the European Commission is now preparing to publish an opinion on Serbia's eligibility for EU membership, the arrest of Mladic could easily secure a green light.

For years now, Mladic has been the main obstacle to Serbia's EU aspirations. Wanted since 1995, Mladic has been protected by allies in the Serbian military and intelligence bodies.

Having lived freely in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, for years after the war, Mladic disappeared after the arrest of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2001.

Prior to that, Mladic had been spotted at soccer games in Belgrade, videotaped in the Serbian military barracks and at weddings in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska.

Who Helped Mladic?

Two years ago, video footage emerged of Mladic living a life of freedom in Serbia, holidaying at a ski resort and dancing at a wedding.

The most recent footage was believed to have been recorded sometime in 2008. Serbian officials were merely waiting for the right moment to arrest him, and that moment finally arrived.

It is hoped that Serbia will continue with the ongoing investigations into Mladic's aides, no matter how embarrassing this may be for the authorities.

It would be interesting to see a list of those individuals and institutions that helped him evade arrest for 16 years. So far, the results of that investigation have shown that Mladic enjoyed the protection of certain elements of the Serbian security services, the army, and politicians.

His arrest will undoubtedly lead to further questions, such as how it took so long to "track down" and "capture" an enfeebled old man who no longer had bodyguards and was clearly bereft of the financial and logistical support he once enjoyed. The timing, of course, is lost on no one.

Muted Public Reaction In Bosnia

What will happen now? And what about Bosnia-Herzegovina? Simply put, nothing much will change between Serbia and Bosnia.

While the media in Bosnia are having a heyday, the public reaction has been nonchalant.

Too much time has passed, and images of an elderly man who can barely walk or speak being hauled off to The Hague do not have the same emotional power as the arrest of a hero-war criminal in his prime with fresh blood on his hands.

There is no celebration on the streets of Bosnia, and it is business as usual. Only the media seem to have any interest in the event.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic before the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. His eventual arrest unfolded in a similar manner to Mladic's.
Most Bosnians believe that the Serbian authorities have long been aware of Mladic's whereabouts, just as they had known the location of wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, sent to The Hague in 2008.

The public, which first and foremost likes to be entertained, will be most interested in seeing the newest pictures of Mladic, especially in light of all of the rumors that have floated about over the past decade: reports of plastic surgery in Russia; claims that he suffered several strokes and other health problems; and most recently, assertions by his family that he died eight years ago.

Karadzic's arrest unfolded similarly. He was apprehended in Belgrade, albeit in "disguise," with a long, white beard, working for a private clinic and posing as a specialist in alternative medicine under the assumed name of Dragan Dabic.

Local media spent weeks detailing Karadzic's life as Dr. Dabic: his mistresses, favorite food, homemade pornography found in his flat.

But once the trial started, the beard was shaved, and Karadzic disappeared from the front pages of local newspapers. The story was no longer sexy, no longer interesting.

A Political Circus

Like Karadzic and Milosevic, Mladic has had plenty of time to plan his defense. Still, it is unclear whether he will actually be physically capable of standing trial.

But when the trial does start -- and it will take at least a year -- his legal strategy will include stunts to ensure delays, denials, counteraccusations, and attempts to turn the entire affair into a political circus.

Mladic will most likely borrow his defense strategy from Karadzic and Milosevic, the most effective tactic being the refusal to enter a plea, vowing to serve as his own defense counsel, and challenging the court's legitimacy.

The Dynamics Of Nationalism

Only a short time will pass before the public again loses interest, leaving only the victims and their families to follow the trial, perhaps along with Bosnian Serb officials who will keep stories of Mladic's heroism alive for as long as possible.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is the comparison to the reaction when The Hague convicted and sentenced two wartime Croatian generals last month.

In Bosnia and Serbia, the arrests of Karadzic and Mladic failed to produce any noteworthy public reaction (with the exception of a small protest in Novi Sad, Serbia), thereby disappointing mainstream media expectations of conflict drama.

In Croatia, the conviction and sentencing of two generals upheld as heroes by the public produced a reaction (both publicly and officially) that was louder and more emotional that many expected.

This alone provides interesting insight into the dynamics of nationalism in the western Balkans, what makes us tick and what our real fears and concerns are.

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