Calling up the hotline at the Serbian Intelligence Agency with a crucial tip about war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic could earn you a $14-million cheque from the Serbian government—and a $14,000 bounty on your own head. That’s how much an ad on SerbianNationalists.com, the website of a right-leaning group, is promising as a reward for turning in anyone who informs on Mladic, the Bosnian-Serb general who stands accused of genocide before the UN international criminal court for the massacre of over 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, and for the siege of Sarajevo.
Mladic is one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the way of Serbia’s entry into the European Union. The EU recently inched closer to starting membership talks with Belgrade, but insists further progress is conditional on serious efforts to capture the fugitive. But although over 60 per cent of Serbs support joining the EU, a roughly equal percentage do not think that Mladic should be arrested and extradited, according to a recent survey.
The Serbian government appears serious about tracking down Mladic, and most Serbs are more focused on their country’s economic woes than wartime grievances, says Srdjan Djeric, a Balkan analyst at the International Crisis Group. Still, authorities would have to remove Mladic quietly to avoid nationalist groups causing street riots, Djeric says, like the ones that turned Belgrade into a war zone in 2008 after the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, widely considered the brains behind the Bosnian war’s ethnic cleansing.
Indeed, in many ways Serbia has yet to heal from its wartime wounds. Among the older generation, according to Djeric, people tend to believe that “the world ganged up against Serbia” in the 1990s, and remain “skeptical” about Western portrayals of the Balkan wars. Many people see Mladic as the victim of a media smear campaign, according to Marko Zilovic, a researcher at a think-tank in Belgrade.
Among the young, people are “divided” over the general, says Zilovic, 26; many of his own peers, he adds, have no doubt Mladic is guilty and should be tried, but just as many defend him. According to Haris Brasidas Deutsch, 27, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Belgrade, Mladic has become the symbol of a “pathetic pop culture.” Especially in the city’s periphery, it’s not unusual to see his name and picture on graffiti and T-shirts. People wear him “like he’s Michael Jackson,” says Deutsch.
The brains behind this ultra-nationalist youth movement are the “old intellectual relics of the 1990s,” says Djeric. Former officials, journalists and intellectuals from the era of former strongman Slobodan Milosevic may have dropped out of the political mainstream, but remain active in fringe media, attracting jobless and alienated youth.
Still, there are signs that attitudes are slowly changing across all ages. In 2005, when Serbian TV aired footage of a Serbian military unit executing civilians in Srebrenica in 1995, the public was “shocked,” says Zilovic. Before, “people tended to say it was all made up.” Now, at worst, he says, “they try to explain it away.” At least, though, there’s no more denying the atrocities actually happened.