With Croat War Crimes Suspect in Custody, Serbia Feels the Heat

Times Staff Writer

The arrest of Croatian war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina had at least as great an effect on Serbia as it did on Croatia, its foe in the Balkan war.

Gotovina’s arrest Thursday on Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands is likely to ease Croatia’s entry into the European Union, which had demanded full compliance with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as a prerequisite.

Gotovina is accused of driving about 150,000 Serbs from their homes in Croatia in 1995 and killing 150 of them.

His arrest has intensified the focus on the Serbian government’s failure to meet the Hague court’s demands that it turn over the Bosnian Serbs’ political and military leaders during the Bosnian conflict: Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.


Both have been under indictment for nearly a decade, accused of genocide during the war and in the slaughter of more than 7,000 boys and men at Srebrenica in 1995.

“No question this turns the heat up on Belgrade and increases the negative pressure on the government from Brussels and Washington,” said Ljiljana Smajlovic, the editor of Politika, a Belgrade daily paper.

Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in the capital, concurred: “Gotovina, Mladic and Karadzic were the last three big shots waiting to be sent to The Hague. Now Gotovina has gone, so now the whole world is putting more pressure on Belgrade to hand over the other two. But I’m not sure they can do it, and that has many implications for politics here.”

The controversy is a reminder that although the wars that traumatized the region are over, much remains unsettled.


After the collapse of the Yugoslav federation, which led to independence for Croatia and three other republics, Serbia remains in a union with Montenegro. Serbia’s failure to send those accused of war crimes to the Hague tribunal has slowed its economic development by delaying its initial steps toward joining the European Union. It also probably will affect the country’s bargaining position when talks on the final status of Kosovo begin next year.

Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian majority wants independence for the Serbian province, which has been run as a United Nations protectorate since 1999. But such an outcome is unacceptable to most Serbs.

Serbian politicians acknowledge that Gotovina’s arrest has made their country’s position more difficult. Until he was captured, Serbia could point to Croatia and say the two countries faced a similar predicament.

The arrest has put Serbia in a “more complicated and more difficult position,” Rasim Ljajic, Serbia and Montenegro’s minister for human rights, said on state television. Ljajic is in charge of his country’s cooperation with the Hague tribunal. “It will increase pressure on Serbia, as we have remained practically the only country that has yet to hand over war crimes suspects.”

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has said the government will do everything possible to find the fugitives, but the promise rings hollow to many because it has been made so often and gone unfulfilled. The government doesn’t seem to have the power to arrest them or know where they are.

“There is nothing the government can offer them in exchange for their surrender,” Grubacic said. “With some of the other people who were indicted, they could say, ‘Go to The Hague and we’ll make sure you can come back here and wait for your trial.’ But when Mladic and Karadzic go to The Hague, they will stay there.”

Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who was visiting Belgrade when Gotovina’s arrest was announced, said she believed the Serbian government did not know the fugitives’ whereabouts. However, the government could be doing more to find them, she said.

Karadzic is believed to have been hiding in the mountains along the Bosnia-Montenegro frontier. There have been several unsuccessful attempts to capture him.


For years, Mladic was thought to be living in the Belgrade area protected by army officers. More recently, however, he was believed to have been moving between Serbia and Bosnia.

The irony, Smajlovic said, is that Serbs are psychologically ready to accept the arrest of former commander Mladic, who in the past had been viewed as their defender.

This year’s coverage of the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, including video images of paramilitary troops shooting unarmed, emaciated Bosnian Muslims, troubled many Serbs.

“There would have been no shouting if Mladic had been arrested,” Smajlovic said.

Special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.