According to the popular interpretation of recent events, most Serbs think of Ratko Mladić as a war hero, and do not believe that the Srebrenica massacre happened. Or do they?
For many years, the whole of Serbia has fallen into the trap of being defined by the deficiencies of its leaders. This has especially been the case with war crimes: analysts, academics and journalists have often assumed that Serbia as a whole is failing to confront its past and is in denial of the atrocities committed.
In fact, many Serbs have welcomed the arrest because they believe (and have done for a long time) that Mladić is responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre. Those who support Mladić enough to protest against his arrest are in a minority. For a lot of people, Mladić has come to be a burden and a symbol of a very dark past and the main obstacle to future progress.
At the same time, his arrest was received with a lot of cynicism – very few people in Serbia actually believe that this will bring about any real change in the country. For most of them, the Mladić arrest has been a media spectacle, but their own stance towards the arrest has been one of indifference because the majority of people in Serbia today are simply too preoccupied with the most basic existential concerns – poverty and unemployment are acute problems here.
This is not to say that they are indifferent towards the victims and atrocities: these matters are deeply disturbing to many people in Serbia. But dealing with the past is much more complicated than the arrest of one man.
What complicates matters is that, while large numbers of people do think of Mladić as a war criminal, they do not believe he should be tried at the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, and certainly that he should not be transferred for the sake of EU membership. In Serbia, this has for a long time been interpreted as a kind of blackmail and has often been met with resentment and perceived bias on the part of international justice: why, people ask, are we required to hand over our war crimes suspects, but “others” are not?
People will often point to former wartime leaders such as Bosnian Naser Orić or Kosovan Albanian Hasim Thaçi, whom they believe to have both escaped justice. Two processes are at play here: the perception that crimes committed against the Serbs have gone unrecognised and unpunished, while at the same time, people are still shocked and troubled that massacres such as Srebrenica have been committed.
Perhaps, yet again, this incident has illustrated that, while legislative processes requiring someone indicted for war crimes to appear in court may be relatively straightforward, the process which societies of the Balkans need to engage in to talk about the atrocities of the past is messy, emotionally difficult and tinged with unacknowledged resentments on all sides.
Thankfully, the civil society in the western Balkans understands this. In response to politicisation of the war crimes debate, some 1,500 regional non-governmental organisations have started an initiative for the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission. Perhaps the responses to the Mladić arrest will remind us of the urgent need to bring people from the Balkans together in this way.
By Jelena Obradovic-Wochink, a lecturer in politics and international relations at Aston University.