RATKO MLADIC: A WAR CRIMINAL OR A NATIONAL HERO
By Sonja Biserko
After sixteen years in hide-out - no doubt assisted by the state and
various services - Ratko Mladic finally ended up in The Hague. The operation of his arrest
(at the eleventh hour) opened the window of opportunity to Serbia and its President Tadic
for obtaining EU candidacy. In could be said in this context that except for Democratic
Party of Serbia and the Radicals all other parliamentary parties went along with his
arrest - did not oppose it at least. Massive protests by extremely rightist groups did not
ensue. The arrest of Ratko Mladic put an end to one chapter of Serbia's relations with
ICTY. The state demonstrated that, when willing, it is capable of controlling "the
street" and presenting itself to its citizens as a state bound by international
But how does all this actually affect Serbia's society, the process of
facing the past and its value system? And what does it mean to Bosnia, for victims in
particular? As someone symbolizing a warrior Ratko Mladic will not disappear overnight.
The investment in the building of his myth has been too big. True, the picture of him
after sixteen years - the picture of a feeble elderly man - contradicts the myth of an
invincible general. And speaking of Bosnia and victims, hardly anything has changed: the
arrest came too late. Whether or not the trial of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic will
contribute to the revision of the Dayton make-shift, including the revision of entity
borders playing into the hands of perpetrators of the gravest war crime, now depends on
the international community.
Media stories following his arrest (about his kneeling at his daughter's
grave, craving for strawberries and similar "little man stories') banalized and
further decomposed the myth of the Serb hero, as the great majority of Serbs have
perceived him for years. During the war, writes Djordje Vukadinovic, Mladic "became a
global Serb national symbol, both positive and negative, and such a mythical status of his
was additionally blown up in the years he played a fugitive from The Hague justice."
Many expected he would never be arrested alive: they hoped he, a Serb hero, would rather
take his own life. His close friends and fans have circulated such messages through the
media for years. Many "patriots" felt humiliated by the fact that he was taken
in alive, turned white and sick, and belittled as an egoistic, gaga old man.
Nationalists cynically claim that Serbia will not profit at all from
Mladic's arrest - according to them, all that Serbia will earn is "some credibility
and that's all." Ratko Mladic was not the only precondition but surely was a major
obstacle to Serbia's obtaining the EU candidacy status. After this "shameful arrest
Serbia will only suffer and those hoping for milk and honey are hoping in vain,"
argue nationalists. The media seized the opportunity of his arrest to run stories about
the genocide of Serbs in the World War II, accentuating Mladic's justified revenge.
Accordingly, those hunting him for years and those finally arresting him are fully aware
that "he was not indicted of some 'genocide'." Massive crimes were committed in
the Balkans but victims were Serbs and their executioners were Croats, they say.
Various commentaries pictured Mladic as a brave man who had not become
rich on people's suffering, who had been "respected by his troops" and had been
probably "the most talented Serb officer since the time of Zivojin Misic."
The arrest itself also exposed in a way the problem of the identity of
Serb society, young people in particular. The issue has been preoccupying the entire Serb
elite, notably parts of it trying to trademark Serbia with a new image. It goes without
saying that the extreme rightist groupings are concerned with the issue the most. The
point is whether Ratko Mladic is perceived as a war criminal or a hero. Reactions to his
arrest indicate that he remains a hero regardless of the way he looked when arrested.
In their comments people from the conservative (and, unfortunately,
majority) academic elite focused on collective consciousness about the past and national
symbols (which Mladic is). For them, arrests of Karadzic and Mladic were "shots at
one's own soul" because "establishment of Republika Srpska and safety for Serbs
on the other bank of the Drina River" are to be credited to Ratko Mladic. Betrayal of
Ratko Mladic and acknowledgment of the Srebrenica myth cheapen "the memory of
Jasenovac and of the bloody chain of Serb history on the other bank of the Drina
River." For it was Mladic whom Serb propaganda, in the past two decades, has haloed
as a general preventing yet another genocide of Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia.
Srdjan Saper, adviser to President Tadic, is also concerned with
Serbia's new trademark. "The picture about Serbia's history has been distorted and
the question is whether such as picture could be straightened out in the places where is
had been distorted. Therefore, what we need probably more than others is a new truth about
our country, the one that will scale down the old one on the ladder of memory," he
says. Distancing ourselves from Milosevic's and Cosic's policies, facing up the truth
about the nineties, recognition of regional realities, acknowledgment of others as equal
partners and taking over the responsibility would surely make the best trademark for
Serbia. In this context, trustworthy and candid instruction of young people in some facts
about massive atrocities and crimes committed in Srebrenica, Vukovar, Prijedor, East
Bosnia, etc. would be a crucial step in the right direction.
Statements by officials are hinting at Serbia's defeat. "By always
aspiring to territories we are missing the opportunities to put what we have in order. Too
many people over here are still dreaming of some Greater Serbia, the very dream of which
can only terrify you," says President Tadic. On the other hand, there are more and
more official indications that Republika Srpska is a booty Serbia would not let go. This
is what Goran Svilanovic, Serbia's ex-foreign minister, had in mind while addressing an
international conference in Sarajevo not long ago. To illustrate his point Svilanovic
quoted a Serb politician who, when asked about the outcome of the support to Milosevic's
project and nationalistic policy, said Serb Vojvodina and Republika Srpska were the
outcomes. "Serbian public opinion is more homogeneous in the defense of these
outcomes than it seems to you, no matter what I, Goran Svilanovic, or someone else tells
you here, in Sarajevo. If you want my sincere answer to the question about whether the
incumbent or some other Serb government will be trying to preserve these outcomes, my
answer is - yes. But what's even more embarrassing is that one must make no bones in
Sarajevo about constitutional patriotism embraced by citizens of Republika Srpska, rather
than its politicians, being almost zero when compared with the state of
Dobrica Cosic's constant public exposure testifies that he still among
Serbia's most influential figures despite the fact that in the past wars he authored the
thesis about "humane resettlement" and was the key ideologist of the Serb
national program. He still shapes the public opinion in Serbia. For him, the war in Bosnia
was "Serbs' liberation war." He argues for "the struggle for the
truth" about the past, "the struggle for the truth about the Bosnian war"
and against "Markaleization and Srebrenicaization" invented "by great
powers and Islamic factors." For him, Republika Srpska is the last line of defense of
Serb truth, Serb democracy and Serb right to survival.
All this indicates that the arrest of Ratko Mladic needs to be perceived
in a larger context of Serbia's national strategy of today. Whether or not his arrest and
ensuing trial will find an appropriate echo in the region, notably in Bosnia, depends on
the international community. If the international community fails to take action in
Bosnia, the trial of Ratko Mladic will have no impact on the region and the process of
reconciliation. Like Biljana Plavsic, he will be remembered as a hero who sacrificed
himself for national interest. The outcome of his sacrifice will be conservation of
Republika Srpska and its possible secession from Bosnia.