TOPICS > Politics

Prosecutors Prepare to Try Former Serb Leader Karadzic

July 22, 2008 at 6:35 PM EDT
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The ex-leader of Bosnian Serbs, responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the region's war, has been transferred to U.N. custody. Former ambassador Richard Holbrooke and author Laura Silber discuss what Radovan Karadzic's arrest means for the region.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on Karadzic and his capture, we’re joined by two veterans of the Yugoslav conflict: Ambassador Richard Holbrooke served in the State Department during the Clinton administration and he was the chief architect of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords which ended the war in Bosnia.

And Laura Silber covered the Bosnian war for the Financial Times. She’s the author of “Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation.” She’s now at the Open Society Institute and travels frequently to the Balkans.

Welcome to you both. Laura, beginning with you, how pivotal a figure over and above the war crimes charges was Karadzic in creating and sustaining this era? In other words, did he drive the conflict or simply exploit it?

LAURA SILBER, Policy Adviser, Open Society Institute: Karadzic was a huge figure. He was a figure in the sense of really the symbolic figure and the actual leader of the Bosnian Serbs in the run-up to the war and during the war.

So I think he was quite important. Whether at times he held all the instruments of power in his hands is debatable, but I think he was certainly in control and was the spiritual guide for the Bosnian Serbs, really had genuine popular support for a time.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Holbrooke, do you agree he really was the driving force in this? And what was his aim ultimately?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE, Former U.S. Ambassador: Of the three men of evil in the Balkans — Mladic, Milosevic, and Karadzic — I always felt that Karadzic was the worst.

As Laura correctly said, he was the intellectual. He really believed in ethnic cleansing. He was the poet, psychiatrist, New York-educated who was their leader.

Milosevic was an opportunist, a former communist. They needed each other, of course. Karadzic couldn’t have done it without the regular Yugoslav army and Mladic’s own involvement. But Milosevic himself couldn’t have done it without some really awful man like Karadzic.

This is a historic event, his capture. Two down, Milosevic dead, Karadzic headed to the Hague, one to go, Ratko Mladic.

Karadzic inspired Serbs to kill

Richard Holbrooke
Former State Department Official
The man we're talking about today is responsible, directly or indirectly, for 300,000 deaths, 2.5 million homeless, and the destruction of a multi-ethnic society.

MARGARET WARNER: Laura Silber, you both met Karadzic. And let me ask you: What was it about him as a personality that explains his rise and his hold on power? I mean, his background didn't prepare him for this. He was, what, a psychiatrist and a poet.

LAURA SILBER: I think he was selected by Serbian nationalists behind the scenes to take the helm of the newly formed in 1990 Serbian Democratic Party. They chose him, but what he gave back was an ability to inspire people. He had a certain charisma.

He eventually -- I would say over the course of a year, really -- came to revel in his power and revel in his ability to arouse mass hysteria, to inspire fear on the part of the Serbs so that they would be more inclined to obey him, and also on the part of the Muslims.

And so in that year, the run-up, the two years after he became head of the party, he was really the one who was stirring up the fear among the Bosnians in Bosnia.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Richard Holbrooke, you had at least one negotiating session with him or meeting with him. Did you see that sort of dreadful charisma that Laura Silber has just described?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Like Hitler, and perhaps Ahmadinejad, it proves that charisma is not necessarily a good thing. Charisma in the hands of evil people can lead to the most terrible brutalities.

The man we're talking about today is responsible, directly or indirectly, for 300,000 deaths, 2.5 million homeless, and the destruction of a multi-ethnic society.

In the 13 hours I spent with him, on September 13, 1995, he and Mladic appeared at one of Tito's old hunting villas outside Belgrade. We knew it was coming. We anticipated it. My negotiating team and I debated how to handle it.

General Clark, Wes Clark, my military adviser, Chris Hill, now our North Korean negotiator, then my political deputy, and I, we debated it. We agreed that we would not ask for a meeting. We had tried to marginalize Karadzic and Mladic, but we would agree to one meeting under strict conditions in which Milosevic was responsible.

When they came in across a field in the fading light, the unmistakable silhouettes of these two terrible men, I felt a jolt in my body, Margaret. This was just extraordinary. These were the men we were trying to marginalize.

I hated them. They were indirectly responsible for the deaths of three of our colleagues, Joe Kruzel, Bob Frasure, Nelson Drew. But we did negotiate with them for 13 hours on a specific issue: lifting the siege of Sarajevo.

Early on in the session, Karadzic just exploded, started talking about the humiliation of the Serb nation and how unfair life was to Serbs, the kind of classic self-victimization of the Serbs with which Laura is so familiar. I said to Milosevic, if this continued, we were leaving and the bombing would intensify.

Milosevic talked to him in Serbian. He calmed down. And we proceeded with the negotiation.

That was the only time I talked directly to Karadzic during the session. I did not shake hands with him.

Mladic was by far the more ugly of the two men that day. He started staring contests with the Americans. He glowered; he stormed.

It was a dramatic session, but we had a pretty good advantage here. We were bombing the Bosnian Serbs, and they knew that if they didn't agree to our terms, the bombing would intensify.

Many hid the leader after the war

Laura Silber
Open Society Institute
It's really an important detail that the Serbian government now in control in Belgrade made this arrest. For the first time last week, the Serbian government held both the civilian secret police and the military secret police under their control.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Laura, back to you. How did he evade capture for 13 years? The first couple of years -- no, I'm sorry. Let me go to Laura, Ambassador Holbrooke.

How did he evade capture? Who was protecting him all this time?

LAURA SILBER: He was protected by many different factions. He was protected by the Serbian Orthodox Church. For a time, he was reported to be hiding out in monasteries, in caves in Bosnia.

Later on, he was certainly protected by elements, radical and national elements, within the Serbian power apparatus. That means the secret police.

It's really an important detail that the Serbian government now in control in Belgrade made this arrest. For the first time last week, the Serbian government held both the civilian secret police and the military secret police under their control.

The radical elements, the leaders, such as Vojislav Kostunica, are now out of power. And I think that's what enabled this arrest, because until now these elements, certain elements, nationalist elements within the government, within the power apparatus, had been helping Karadzic hide out and survive.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Dick Holbrooke, did -- I mean, NATO forces were on the ground for a number of years -- still are, and E.U. troops -- and he was operating in plain sight the first couple of years.


MARGARET WARNER: Why didn't they ever pick him up?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: Well, that's a great failure of NATO, particularly at the beginning when he was working in Pale with his green Mercedes-Benz parked outside.

But Laura said something that really must be underscored here. President Tadic, Boris Tadic, deserves enormous credit for the courage he showed. His best friends, Zoran Djindjic, former prime minister of Serbia, was murdered by fascist thugs and secret police after he turned Milosevic over to the Hague.

What Tadic has done is huge and historic. And it will start -- I think it will help Serbia join the European Union. It will help stabilize Serbia. It will reduce the undermining of the Dayton agreements in Bosnia.

This is not just a big historical footnote. This is an ongoing story. And if Mladic joined Karadzic on that one-way trip to the Hague, I think we can finally see the beginning of the end of the legacy of this dreadful event that tore the Balkans apart.

Nationalism is strong but political

Richard Holbrooke
Former State Department official
Karadzic was kind of like a Robin Hood. He'd escaped for 12 years NATO forces. He'd spread false stories about himself all over the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Laura, you were just there, I think a couple of weeks ago. Do you think that this marks a real turning point for Serbia? Or is that kind of ultra-nationalism that fueled and sustained Karadzic, is that still pretty strong there?

LAURA SILBER: The ultra-nationalism is strong, but as Ambassador Holbrooke pointed out, the nationalists are not in power. Boris Tadic is in power, and I think that's the key, and that he was elected even though expectations that he would lose the election in the wake of nationalist fury over Kosovo were great, and instead Serbs showed that they, too, want to be part of Europe. They want to be part of Europe.

And the European Union did a smart thing by offering them a symbolic gesture of making visas accessible to Serbs for the first time in years and also by doing a more actual important thing, of allowing Serbia to sign the Agreement on Stabilization and Association in Europe, which is an important step towards joining the European Union.

And I think that Serbs have shown by their vote in May that they want to be part of Europe. They're not yet ready completely to come to terms, I think, with what happened in Bosnia and what happened in the destruction of Yugoslavia, but I think that will take some time.

But this was a really important step. And when I was there, Serbian government officials told me that they were about to make these arrests, that they were ready to do what it takes. And I think this is an important part, an important step.

MARGARET WARNER: And briefly, Ambassador Holbrooke, Bosnia itself, how lasting are the scars from what Karadzic inflicted on Bosnia?

RICHARD HOLBROOKE: You know, Bosnia has two entities, and the Serb part of it is under the hands of a post-Dayton, post-war man named Milorad Dodik. This will take a lot of pressure off Dodik.

I was with him a few weeks ago in Banja Luka. And he was under tremendous pressure from these people.

Karadzic was kind of like a Robin Hood. He'd escaped for 12 years NATO forces. He'd spread false stories about himself all over the region.

Removing him is tremendously valuable. And it should help improve the situation in Bosnia. But as Laura said, it isn't over yet. The president of Bosnia and Sarajevo, the Muslim, Haris Silajdzic, has now got to take some positive gestures to heal the wounds, as well.

And he is still bleeding from the legacy of the war, in very personal terms, as Laura chronicled in her books and movies.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Laura Silber, thank you both.

LAURA SILBER: Thank you.