Every few months we gather round and uncork a nice kratošija to mark the passing of yet another deadline for the arrest of Ratko Mladić. This one came and went much like the previous ones, except the weather was pleasanter and the rumours planted in the media less interesting. Last time around we had the image of special forces (not) surrounding [choose one or more of the following] a) mountain chalets, b) apartments hidden in the jungles of Novi Beograd, c) border regions of Macedonia, or d) the Russian Federation. This time all we have is the arrests of a few vojnih lica, with promises of more as long as they are either retired, from RS, or if possible both. This is all the same to Mladić, who by now is well used to other people facing difficulties on his behalf.
Now, nothing characterizes politics in Serbia better than inertia. Inertia (I have learned from my daughter) describes not only the tendency of immobile objects to remain immobile, but also the tendency of an object moving in a straight line to continue moving in a straight line. This is one reason that I think that the arrest will be coming (no prediction when) after all: the decision by the European Union to tie the continuation of negotiations on accession to progress on this arrest has set in motion a chain of events which has forced even the Serbian government to behave as though it has some responsibility for the future of the state. But the longer it takes, the less it will matter.
A thesis about transitional justice: it matters to the extent that it is about marking a break between one political order and a new one, which uses the opportunity to characterize its relationship with the previous regime, the nature of its commitment to the rule of law, and the values that distinguish it from its predecessor. To the extent that it is about taking certain individuals and slowly moving them from hiding places to places of confinement, it loses its symbolic appeal as quickly as the people to be moved lose their influence over the day to day fates of the people around them. For some time people asked (although they largely knew the answer) "where is Ratko?" Increasingly people outside a few small, interested cliques are asking (probably more than a little disingenuously) "who is Ratko?" By the time a trial gets under way, if it gets appreciable publicity at all, there may be little interest in the answers it offers to the question "what was Ratko?" A corrolary to the thesis: transitional justice is only transitional if it takes place quickly enough to influence transition. By the time the restoration begins, transitional justice is mostly a long process of lightening a bit of ballast.
In this respect, the interrupted trial of Slobodan Milošević will probably have the net result of damaging future efforts. It is not that there is any overwhelming sympathy for the departed indictee: the desultory sendoff he got shows that well enough. Rather, the long and inconclusive process has come to symbolize a whole set of blocked or diverted initiatives from October 2000 onward: from political and economic reform, to the rebuilding of regional relationships, to the reanimation of public institutions, to the fading of the nineties-vintage criminal elite, to this, there is an inescapable sense of incompleteness and futility.
The question will always remain open as to whether more direct means of settling accounts might have had a greater effect at least in the short term. My inclination is to dismiss such talk as a retrospective fantasy of revenge. More to the point, as observed long ago by old Mr Yeats, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." The more that setbacks and delays contribute to general disillusion and resignation, the easier the job for the folks who are waiting in the wings and plotting their return. This little story, recurring every few months, is just one of the more visible symptoms.