Ratko Mladic's capture: Was timing coincidence or careful calculation?

The capture of suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic came as a top EU envoy was traveling to Serbia to warn that an EU vote on Serbian membership hinged on Mladic's status.

Radivoje Pavicic/AP
Posters with photos of war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic are plastered on a wall in downtown Banja Luka, northwest of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Friday, May 27.

The arrest of Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic after 15 years on the run astounds many Balkan experts who thought the day would never come. Mr. Mladic's legendary ties to the Army and his purported hold on Serbian pride were thought to make him untouchable. Instead, today he is in a Belgrade jail, awaiting extradition, and having been granted a request of strawberries and a TV set, according to Serb media.

But Thursday's arrest comes amid key changes in international and Serbian thinking – ranging from the killing of Osama bin Laden, to the Arab Spring, the economic crisis in Europe. It includes stern warnings to Belgrade by European Union officials and a damning report on Serbia's noncooperation on Mladic by the chief prosecutor of the United Nations Yugoslav tribunal.

The Serb general remains popular in parts of Serbia and among nationalists that repeat the slogan "only unity will save the Serbs." But in the end, Mladic, the accused architect of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, may have been too great a liability for a country whose new generations seek to join Europe and emerge from isolation, say analysts.

Mladic's extradition to The Hague, expected next week, will remove the largest obstacle to Serbia's bid to join the EU amid low enthusiasm for enlarging the 27-member union. Europe is not in the same robust state as five years ago. Statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Mladic's arrest is "the best basis for the region achieving reconciliation and a future in Europe," may be taken with some relief by the government of Boris Tadic.

Mladic, like bin Laden, had long hid near capital

Analysts say Serb officials undoubtedly noted Pakistan's embarrassment in the wake of a US raid on bin Laden, who had apparently been living for years not far from the capital. In the light of numerous reports of Mladic sightings in Belgrade, Serb officials may have calculated that news stories showing a war-crimes fugitive living in relative ease in the capital might not be salutary.

The arrest also comes amid a G8 summit in France this week that is championing the cause of Arab states that have shown democratic aspirations. Meanwhile Serbia, a nation of great potential influence and capability in the Balkans, is still seen as a pariah harboring war criminals. During the cold war, Belgrade was an essential posting for diplomats and a crossroads of East and West. But Serbia's nationalist policies in the 1990s caused the state to retreat into isolation and revanchism, analysts say.

Mr. Tadic announced Mladic's arrest Thursday as EU foreign chief Catherine Ashton was on her way to Belgrade to administer a warning that Mladic's status would dash Serbs hopes for an affirmative EU member vote this fall. Tadic stated immediately that the capture of Mladic signals, "A difficult period of our history is over and Serbia's reputation is no longer tarnished. Our work on the search for war crime suspects will increase Serbia's moral credibility in the international arena."

Was timing 'sheer luck' or calculated for maximum impact?

Dejan Anastasijevic, a leading Serb journalist who testified at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal says the timing of Mladic's arrest was "sheer luck. A tip came only days ago." Mr. Anastasijevic says that if Serb authorities knew where Mladic was "they would have arrested him before [UN tribunal chief prosecutor Serge] Brammertz sent his very critical report to the UN Security Council."

But this version of events is countered by Zoran Dragisic, a security expert and professor in Belgrade who says that the Serb government waited for "the most opportune political moment to arrest Mladic," and knew where he was or how to find him. "Mladic was too big a problem for the ruling coalition," Mr. Dragisic told B-92, the independent Belgrade news service. "There's Catherine Ashton, the Serge Brammertz report ... it was clear it was high time, and that the job had to be finished," he said.

Experts say that the contingent of Serb security forces that has protected Mladic has grown older and has not always maintained the disciplines of before, that the reform and pro-Europe minded structures of the Tadic government have grown more mature and stronger, and that many Serbs have simply grown tired of heavy-gauge nationalism after years of hearing its propaganda daily when what they want are jobs and chances to travel.

Bosnian expert Marko Attila Hoare at Kingston University in London argues the important question is "when did [Serb authorities] find out where Mladic was, and when did they act? What has changed in the Serbian internal balance of forces?"

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