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.

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

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.

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.

Familiar Serbian nationalist themes were also revisited, with repeated calls for the creation of a “Greater Serbia” including Kosovo, Montenegro, and parts of Bosnia and Croatia, and appeals to the memory of King Lazar, considered a Serbian martyr after his death at the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when the Serbian Kingdom fought the invading Ottoman army.

“All our history from King Lazar will fly away to The Hague with Ratko Mladic,” yelled actress Ivana Zigon, her voice cracking.

Hooligans tip the protest toward violence

Protesters started to drift slowly away after only an hour, and chanting from hooligans associated with Belgrade’s largest soccer clubs – and showing little political interest – grew louder. “Knife, barbed wire, Srebrenica!”

Some let off flares and the riot police began to assemble a ring of steel around the demonstration. Speakers on stage appealed for calm as youths flicked up their hoods and pulled scarves over their faces and attempted to charge the police lines. A hymn praising the SRS leader Vojislav Seselj – himself on trial at The Hague for alleged war crimes – brought the rally to a formal end, by which point riot police were closing off roads around Parliament.

Hooded teenagers shouted “Come on! Come on!” as bottles and rocks were thrown. The rioters were well contained and order was quickly restored, with dozens of detained young men lined up face-down on the pavement outside Belgrade’s historic Hotel Moscow.

The SRS quickly denied responsibility for the violence, and senior party official Dragan Todorovic suggested that the night would have been free of incident “had the state organs acted professionally, instead of in accordance with political interests,” according to Serbian broadcaster B92.

Welcome closure

Sitting with a coffee in Kalenic, one of Belgrade’s traditional taverns, Nemanja Kovacevic, a 27-year-old student of political science, suggested that the arrest of Mladic brings welcome closure not just to the postwar period, but to Yugoslavia’s transition from communism, and signals a defeat for its old elite.

“It’s over,” he said. “It’s the end of one of the darkest period in Serbia’s history, and a blow for the lobby of rightwing politicians, war criminals, war profiteers, and academics who oppose a European future. Most of these people aren’t nationalists, they are old communists who have switched sides. The JNA [Yugoslav National Army, of which Mladic was previously a senior officer] was a criminal communist army.”

For Kovacevic, and many like him, Mladic is far from a hero, but a symptom of a country’s sickness that they hope is now banished. “When I first saw his picture after the arrest,” he says. “The first thing I thought of was the wire tying the victims’ wrists in Srebrenica.”

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