Conflict & Justice

Serbs in shock over Ratko Mladic's arrest


A dog walks in front of riot police as demonstrators try to protest over the arrest of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic in Belgrade on May 26, 2011.


Attila Kisbenedek

BELGRADE, Serbia — As evening fell on the day indicted Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic was arrested, young men gathered in the center of this capital, shouting at police, "Go to Kosovo, go to Kosovo!"

More than 15 years since the end of the Bosnian war, more than a decade since NATO bombs ended the war in Kosovo, tensions still run high in the Balkans. The reaction to Mladic's arrest shows that many Serbs hang on to old grievances, and do not believe the promise of apprehending war criminals — EU membership — is worth it.

The director of the Serbian Office for EU Integration, Milica Delevic, said that only 57 percent of Serbian citizens want to join the EU, the lowest rate since 2002. Serbs see the EU's demand that war criminals be extradited as blackmail. Further, as more Serbs have the opportunity to travel, they see the EU they visit in contrast to the rosy picture described by politicians.

A user of the Serb online forum Krstarica captured the anger many felt after Mladic's arrest: "Serbia as a state gets nothing," wrote "Jedite kod Joa." "There is nothing to gain. Serbian people will now be faced with great pressure, especially in Bosnia."

The arrest came as a shock. Serbs believed that Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, was politically and legally untouchable. Popular wisdom had him living in Russia under strong political protection, or already dead.

His cousin, speaking from Mladic's home village of Bozanovici, Bosnia, told Serbian media: "I did not expect he will be arrested. His only fault is that he defended the Serbian people."

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, on the other hand, has charged Mladic with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. His indictment accuses him of targeting civilians during the Siege of Sarajevo and ordering the execution of thousands of Muslim men and boys in Srebenica.

Milos Saljic, a spokesman for Mladic's family, said his wife and son were shocked by the arrest but at the same time very happy "because they finally found out that he is alive."

In the village of Lazarevo, where officials say they arrested Mladic, residents expressed disbelief, saying they found out about the arrest on TV. A group of angry citizens gathered outside the house where officials say Mladic was living and attacked journalists, unplugging the cables used by Serbian TV B92. Nationalist music echoed in the village and Orthodox priests prayed for Mladic's health in the local church.

Serbian police banned the organized gathering of citizens in the capital. A small group of about 10 young men walked around the center of Belgrade, chanting nationalistic songs. Buses of police arrived in the city center.

Meanwhile, one poll found that 51 percent of Serbs opposed extraditing Mladic to The Hague to stand trial before the Tribunal.

"I feel as if I am arrested," wrote one user, Daniela Benic, on the Facebook wall of the Serbian Defense Minister. "All of us are little in front of God. Aren't we?"