Mladić arrest imminent?

Reuters is speculating that the broadcasting by Serbian state TV of video showing Serbian paramilitaries executing six males, apparently civilians from Srebrenica, was aimed at preparing public opinion for the arrest of Bosnian-Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladić. The story's main piece of supporting evidence is in this passage:

"This video will mark a turning point in the minds of our public and make it easier for the government to fulfil its commitments toward the (Hague war crimes) tribunal," said Minister for Human Rights Rasim Ljajić, a Muslim.

His words are code here for the arrest of General Ratko Mladic, former commander of the Bosnian Serb army. He is indicted for genocide in Europe's worst atrocity since World War II, the July 1995 massacre at Srebrenica of 8,000 Muslim males.

This looks like rather flimsy evidence to me, but it's an interesting thought that might put some things in perspective that otherwise don't make much sense.

The most obvious of these concerns the timing of the publication and the arrests. Human rights lawyer Kandić is thought to have dropped the tape off on 23 May. A week later it was shown at The Hague, but with a good number of the faces shown on it identified by first and last names, or in some cases by first names or nicknames only. Was that work done while the tape was in the prosecution's possession? Didn't the prosecution have the obligation to alert the defense to its existence right away? More importantly, how did they manage to put names on faces? It is here that things start getting interesting: just hours after the video airs on Serbian TV, the authorities announce that several of the paramilitaries shown on the tape had been arrested, including one of the executioners. (The numbers are hazy, but most reports put them at seven or eight.)

If, as the defense witness claims during whose testimony at The Hague the tape was shown, the Scorpions were not operating in Bosnia under interior ministry command, how come the government seems to have pretty complete files on these guys, including their current whereabouts? This happened ten years ago, so a good number of them would be retired by now; how does the government have their address? I think there's a fair bit of explaining to be done.

Moreover, there seems to have been some sort of complicity -- perhaps tacit rather than overt -- between Kandić, the prosecution, and the Serbian authorities. Otherwise, action could simply not have been taken so swiftly. I imagine that something like this might have happened: Kandić gets the tape and passes it on to the prosecution. She sits on it while the prosecution, perhaps with her help, is trying to identify the folks on the tape. (Incidentally, nobody seems to have worried too much about identifying the vitcims; Reuters quotes a woman who says she recognizes her son among those executed.) Once they're getting there, she passes it on to the government, perhaps already with names attached. The government is notified by the prosecution that this will be shown at some point during the trial, and the authorities are preparing to make these arrests.

The prosecution and Kandić don't care about the political constellation; their overriding interest is, rightly, to see Mladić in the dock. The Serbian government feels it has to do something to maintain the momentum of the last few months, when droves of indictees "surrendered" to the ICTY, some more and some less voluntarily. Perfect congruence of interests?

[Update, 4 June: a Reuters report (no link available) shed new light on this today. It said, "The video was obtained last December from an unnamed and now protected source by Hague prosecutors and Natasa Kandic, a Serbian human rights activist. They spent months authenticating it and investigating the men it showed. It was shown to Serbian war crimes prosecutors a week ago and its broadcast to a national audience was coordinated with the government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica."]

But what I don't get is the broader context. The victims seem too young to have been of any intelligence value. The question then is, were they shipped all the way from Srebrenica to Trnovo or Jahorina (again, the details of where the killings took place are hazy) just to be killled? If they were just to be killed, why not kill them right there, in Srebrenica, as happened to thousands of others? Why were these guys special? Why bother to get special police from Serbia to kill them?

Even thought he footage seems clear enough, this tape is hiding a secret -- whatever it may be.

Accounting for the past

Under headlines like "Srebrenica video sobers Serbia, brings arrests," "Serbia shocked by video showing Srebrenica shootings," "Srebrenica video sobers Serbia, brings arrests," or "Serbs stunned by pictures of massacre at Srebrenica" (though pride of place no doubt belongs to "Bosnia: Sick video killers arrested," for several reasons), the media this morning reported the fallout from a video tape obtained by courageous human-rights lawyer Nataša Kandić and shown at the trial of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević Wednesday.

The tape, excerpts of which can be seen here, shows the cold-blooded execution of six men by a special police unit from Serbia. The executions took place near Pale and, the Hague prosecution says, involved victims bused there from Srebrenica in the summer of 1995.

Kandić had handed over the tape to the Serbian authorities on 23 May, according to the New York Times. The footage was broadcast on Serbian public TV (RTS) and B-92 Wednesday night, the day it was shown at The Hague; within less than 24 hours, eight members of the unit, whose faces are clearly visible in the video, had been arrested.

A good analysis of the tape's contents and its significance for the Milošević trial can be found on the website of the Coalition for International Justice.

The Times story has some rather interesting vox pop from Belgrade that suggest that we've moved from the denial stage (this didn't happen) through refusal (we didn't know this happened) and relativism (also known as wavering: bad things happened but it was a war and bad things do happen in wars, and the others did it too) all the way to jaded weariness, as evidenced by two statements in the report:

"What was shown on that tape was just a tiny bit of the crimes committed throughout the war," said Neohjsa Mrdjenovic, a 29-year-old musician. "The footage will not change anything because people knew what had been happening. Everyone knew about the siege of Sarajevo all along. Unfortunately people don't care about it. They only care how to feed their family."

Rodoljub Cosic, 25, said: "The footage might change some people's opinion about Srebrenica, but the majority knew what had happened there. People knew what had happened in Srebrenica more than any other place as it has been often raised in public."

So now we're right at the stage where it's all just old news and we all knew about this anyway and what's all the fuss about. (I'm not necessarily imputing these feelings to these two fellows -- I'm always open to the suggestion that someone may have been misquoted or their statements taken out of context, or badly translated. But they seem indicative of a broader mood now that outright denial has become more difficult.)

And what these statement play down is the power of pictures over mere "information." People may have known what had happened at Srebrenica, though a good many Serbs still doubt the facts, but they never saw what kind of brutality is involved in the simple execution of just six men, a trivial occurrence by the standards of that war.

What the whole story also suggests, of course, is that the government -- and this may come back to haunt it -- is perfectly capable of arresting war crime suspects if it feels it's in its interest to do so.


What part of "no" don't you understand?

On Monday, the grandiosely named "National Assembly" of Republika Srpska, the parliament of the Bosnian-Serb statelet in Bosnia, rejected police reform proposals that were a precondition for the opening of talks on association with the EU.

High representative Paddy Ashdown commented in a press conference Tuesday, "The RS... has finally, it seems, turned its back on the future – and turned its back on Bosnia's future, too." Without giving details, he all but announced sanctions against the RS government and its ruling party, the SDS, over the next few days: "some consequences will follow quickly."

Police reform -- agreed to earlier in principle -- is one of the conditions for the EU to consider signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia, which is now off the table -- for the time being.

Ashdown said, "The road to Europe will remain closed for the country until, as must happen in the end, the Government of Republika Srpska is prepared to adhere to European standards."

He added, "I cannot break this logjam. The European Commission has, quite rightly, said that getting to Europe means BiH politicians doing it, not the High Representative. Bosnia -- and the RS, their politicians themselves -- have to meet those standards. But until they do, the rest of Europe won’t wait. This region will not move towards Europe at the pace of the slowest ship in the convoy."

Ashdown had hoped to announce at the press conference concrete steps to transform his office (OHR) from overseer to facilitator, from "high representative" to "EU special representative," and to transfer competences to the national authorities. The RS, with its customary, impeccable sense of timing fully intact, smashed these plans one day after the French voters said non to the EU constitution, a rejection that also constituted in part a rejection of enlargement.

But, as Ashdown pointed out, it will be the people of Bosnia who will have to live with the consequences.

Will that be enough to sway the RS? Are Ashdown's words still designed to force the RS into line, or already a recognition that the situation is hopeless? Will OHR take this opportunity, thrown to it by the RS, to sweep politicians out of office one last time, before the "Bonn powers" disappear?


Jack to Nick: I've read my Machiavelli

President Chirac has appointed a new government after Sunday's resounding non to the new (now defunct) EU constitution; he announced that his arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy had been offered, and accepted, a "senior" position in the new cabinet -- reportedly that of interior minister. Who was it who said, "keep your friends close; your enemies, closer?"


Mark Twain on the French

From a piece by Stacy Schiff -- Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov's biographer -- on Americans in France:

In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.
From today's Times -- free registration required.