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Signs of a changed Serbia in weakened pro-Mladic protests

Thousands protested the arrest of alleged Serbian war criminal Ratko Mladic in Belgrade on Sunday. But indifference or relief has largely outweighed anger over the arrest.

By Andrew MacDowallCorrespondent / May 30, 2011

Ultranationalist protesters rally outside the Serbian parliament in Belgrade in support of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic.

Darko Vojinovic/AP

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Belgrade and Lazarevo, Serbia

Serbian police arrested about 180 people in Belgrade last night as a protest against the arrest of alleged war criminal Ratko Mladic turned violent. But in a shift from the past, the eruption of violence has been more associated with young hotheads than any political motive.

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Hooded young men smashed paving and low walls around the Serbian Parliament and hurled the chunks of rock at riot police and heavily armored gendarmes, who were out in force. Some 32 police and 11 civilians were injured, according to the Interior Ministry, but authorities quickly brought the rioting under control.

The unrest came at the end of a rally organized by the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), the country’s largest opposition party, to protest the arrest and expected extradition of General Mladic, the former commander of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS).

The demonstration was poorly attended by the standards of similar events in the past, including protests against the arrest of Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic in 2008. The disturbances afterward were also mild by comparison, partly because the SRS is weaker, after a split when some members founded a new, more moderate party.

Indeed, the mood on the streets of Belgrade since Mladic’s arrest has generally been one of resignation among nationalists and relief among liberals, but most of all, of indifference. Particularly among the young, Serbia’s economic problems and its drive for EU accession take precedence over the past.

“It’s good that it’s happened, he has to be responsible,” said Dusan Petkov, a university student. “Only one person I know is going to the demonstration; it’s mainly nationalists. Really, Mladic is the least of our troubles.”

15 counts of war crimes

Mladic has been indicted on 15 counts of war crimes committed during the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. He is held responsible for ordering the Sarajevo Massacre, in which about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by VRS troops, as well as the 43-month siege of Sarajevo, in which 10,000 civilians perished.

The rally, sullen in mood but peaceful until the end, was attended by about 10,000 people, fewer than the organizers had hoped. Patriotic songs were broadcast over loudspeakers and party banners waved. Those attending ranged from disabled war veterans to teenagers in hooded tops.

One tall, moustachioed old man walked around holding aloft a paper plate with “Death to American and European Fascism and Hitlerism” written on one side and “Long Live Ratko Hero” on the reverse.

Many protesters wore badges depicting Mladic and Mr. Karadzic, and t-shirts with Serbian nationalist symbols were much in evidence. Speakers included SRS officials and Darko Mladic, the general’s son, who earlier in the day had visited his father in jail.

The speeches focused on attacks on Serbia’s Westward-leaning president, Boris Tadic, who was portrayed as a traitor, and on the legitimacy of the court in The Hague in which Mladic is likely to stand trial.

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