Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb wartime commander, was captured last week. For 16 years he had been a fugitive from justice. Gen. Mladic was wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity. His arrest in Lazarevo, a small town north of Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, is supposed to bring closure to the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it won’t.
Gen. Mladic will be sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. There he will stand in the dock alongside his one-time ally, former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic. Gen. Mladic’s arrest paves the way for Serbia to now join the European Union. Brussels insisted that the capture of Gen. Mladic was the price Belgrade had to pay to attain EU candidate status. Some Serbs - especially, younger ones - welcomed the news. They believe the path is now open for Serbia’s economic modernization and reintegration with its neighbors. For many others, however, the extradition of Gen. Mladic represents another blow to Serbia’s national honor.
Yet no matter what happens at The Hague, the Bosnian Serb’s ghost will haunt the region for decades to come. Along with late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic and Mr. Karadzic, this evil triumvirate implemented the genocidal plan for a “Greater Serbia” - an ethnically pure Serbian empire stretching from the Danube to the Adriatic. They devised a diabolical strategy they called “ethnic cleansing.” The goal: to murder or expel all non-Serbs from large swathes of territory, which would then be annexed by Belgrade.
In Croatia, Serb paramilitaries backed by the Yugoslav army waged a brutal war of aggression. Almost one-third of Croatia was conquered, nearly 20,000 civilians were murdered and more than 180,000 Croatians were ethnically cleansed. Entire cities, such as Vukovar, were razed to the ground. Catholic churches were deliberately destroyed; thousands of women were raped; and homes were pillaged and burned. This was only the warm-up, however, for the fighting in Bosnia.
Radical Serb nationalists viewed the former Yugoslav republic as the big prize. From 1992 until 1995, Serbian marauders went on a rampage. They carved up nearly 70 percent of Bosnia, systematically ethnically cleansed nearly 2 million Bosnian Muslims and Croatians, and killed more than 100,000 people - many of them women and children. Gen. Mladic was the henchman who executed the policy of genocide and mass murder. He oversaw the shelling of Sarajevo, whose only military aim was to terrorize the civilian population.
In July 1995, he ordered and directed the greatest single massacre in Europe since the end of World War II. His forces overran the United Nations “safe haven” of Srebrenica. Serbian troops separated and then executed about 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in front of freshly dug mass graves. Their blood was to consecrate a Great Serb state. If not for a massive American-backed Croatian military offensive, known as Operation Storm, and subsequent U.S. air strikes, Milosevic would have achieved his imperial, neo-fascist ambitions.
Gen. Mladic is the Adolf Eichmann of the Balkans. Yet, he remains a hero to many Serbian ultra-nationalists - especially, in Bosnia. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords may have ended the war. But it gave birth to Gen. Mladic’s - and Mr. Karadzic’s - Frankenstein monster: The Bosnian Serb Republic. It is one of two subnational entities (the other being the Muslim-Croat Federation) created by Dayton. It has its own parliament, flag, customs office and police force. In other words, the Bosnian Serbs have all the trappings of statehood. Their leaders are now pushing for a referendum to eventually secede from Bosnia and join Serbia. In short, the drive for a Greater Serbia has not ended; only the means have changed. Political demagoguery now trumps military aggression.
Bosnia is unstable and fragile. It is a synthetic nation - a product of Western nation-building - doomed to failure. For 15 years, it has been kept together only by U.N. peacekeepers and NATO. Its central flaw is that the majority of its citizens - ethnic Serbs and Croats - don’t want to share a state with Bosnian Muslims. The Bosnian Serb Republic, however, will never achieve international legitimacy because it is founded upon war crimes and ethnic cleansing. Most non-Serbs have been prevented from returning to their homes. Bosnian Serb leaders are playing with fire. An independence vote would inevitably trigger a fierce backlash among Bosniaks, likely resulting in another war. Secession would spark a Balkan powder keg.
In Serbia, revanchist forces are also on the rise. Led by the odious Tomislav Nikolic, radical nationalists are surging in the polls. Mr. Nikolic is a national-socialist, who rails against economic liberalization and the West. In particular, he demands that Kosovo, the Bosnian Serb Republic and vast chunks of Croatia be absorbed by Belgrade - only he seeks to do it “peacefully.” For many Serbs, Gen. Mladic’s call for race, blood and empire lives on.
The ICTY has been a dismal failure. It has not brought about regional reconciliation or delivered true justice. Milosevic, the butcher of the Balkans, died peacefully as his trial dragged on for years, with no verdict in sight. Like Milosevic, Gen. Mladic (and Mr. Karadzic) will be allowed to grandstand, portraying Serbs as victims of a giant anti-Serbian conspiracy. Gen. Mladic may be sick, old and frail. But, sadly, he is the ugly face - the embodiment - of Serbian nationalism. And it is not dead.
Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a columnist at The Washington Times and president of the Edmund Burke Institute.