Saturday, July 26, 2008

Forgetting our "inner Radovan"

I am sure I am not alone in finding the reappearance of Radovan Karadzic an extraordinary tale.

There are so many points I would like to make about this story but I will try and limit myself to a few key issues.

Firstly, the sheer improbability of a European political leader (albeit a Balkan one in the context of a civil war) being able to just disappear for 12 years. While the former Yugoslavia has had its fair share of troubles, it is not Afghanistan. It is accessible by numerous budget airlines, the Adriatic coast is a popular tourist destination, many of the former Yugoslav countries are already in the EU or failing that border an EU country and Belgrade this year paid host to the Eurovision song contest (no less!). Therefore it seems extraordinary that a face so frequently on TV screens in the 1990s and never far out of the news since then could simply disappear and carry on living in the capital of Serbia.

One telling comment I saw this week was in response to a Times article. To paraphrase, the article noted that there was astonishment that Mr. Karadzic had been found living in the centre of Belgrade and not hiding in the mountains like Osama bin Laden. One reader commented "How do we do know that Osama bin Laden is not living in London and claiming Incapacity benefit". In the light of this story, we probably don't know that he isn't.

Secondly, it is one thing to go into hiding for 12 years but whereas I suspect most people finding themselves being hunted worldwide with a $5 million bounty on their heads, would probably stay inside for the rest of their lives going out only if absolutely necessary, Mr. Karadzic revealed some rare qualities in taking on a new career. How unlikely it seems to fail in political leadership during a civil war and take on a new career as a "new age therapist", a "spiritual explorer" or "bearded medic" as he has been variously described. Mr. Karadzic as a qualified psychiatrist had some basis for this line although it seems he has branched out in the "alternative" sphere.

Thirdly, having taken on a new career when over 50 to also do rather well at it, having a website, giving lectures, attending conferences and even according to latest reports going overseas to treat patients/clients (to Vienna apparently).

Some commentators are working hard to explain the difference between the old and new Radovan. I have read explanations that the emotional detachment necessary to practice medicine makes someone well placed to be a mass murderer (Dominic Lawson, Independent) while having a swipe at new age "quackery" at the same time.

These attempts to explain or compartmentalise apparent evil are utlimately as dangerous as the evil itself. The reason for this is those who seek to link evil in others with a career choice, trendy beliefs that they do not share, a difficult childhood they did not have etc overlook one main unsettling reality. If you want to see someone who has the potential to murder, to shell a neighbour's city, to round up people into camps and worse then start by looking in the mirror. As always the in attrocities it is not possible for one person to perpetrate them. They need thousands of assistants and most of them were otherwise unremarkable people.

While Radovan Karadzic may have realised some of his darker side more than many of us, he is not somehow unique or an aberration. He was in the right (or wrong) place at the right (or wrong time). True, he has certain talents that make him a leader and someone who can influence people. However I do not believe there is anything uniquely evil about Radovan Karadzic compared to the rest of us.

This is also why it should not be so surprising that he could have taken up a "caring" career apparently have some success in the field of autism where the limitations of conventional medicine are well known.

There is good as well as evil in Radovan Karadzic as there is in everyone else. That is of course not to absolve him of any wrong doing he has done.

However Mr. Karadzic was operating in the context of a civil war when there were attrocities on all sides. This was no one sided slaughter, although the Serbs undoubtedly had some military strengths. Elsewhere in Bosnia they were not so strong and had attrocities perpetrated against them. They were also operating under the dangerous emotion of fear remembering how Croats allied to the Nazis had slaughtered Serbs in the Second World War. Additionally the Bosnian Muslims now celebrating Karadzic's capture had formed an SS Division under Heinrich Himmler complete with a muslim Mufti.

Born in 1945, Karadzic would have no doubt been well aware from his parents and others of the war time attrocities perpetrated against Serbs and how the Serbians had formed the backbone of anti-Nazi partisan activity in Yugoslavia. After the war ethnic differences were successfully if forcefully cemented in Tito's communist Yugoslav state. "1989 and all that" lead to the collapse of communism and quickly the collapse of Yugoslavia, hastened by Germany's hasty and arguably unfortunate (given the history) recognition of Croatian independence.

The collapse of the old Yugoslav state lead to each ethnic group seeking the best possible outcome for its own. Multi-party elections resulted in ethnic groupings and then eventually succession and war. The Serbs sought to build a "greater Serbia" fearing for their minorities in the newly emerging states. Arguably remembering the events of 45 years previously this fear was not entirely baseless.

A brutal war followed (are any wars not brutal ?) with largely incompetent attempts by the UN to broker peace. Alexander Ivanko and Yasushi Akashi were two of the public faces of the UN attempt who seemed to be on TV screens almost daily in the mid 90s. The meloncholy Ivanko and the ever cheerful Akashi formed a strange double act at the time. The EU proved its enormous limitations too and was unable to stop a war in Europe despite its claims to the opposite. The war only ended in 1995 with US and UK involvement, the Dayton Agreement setting the borders that had been formed in battle.

Karadzic had been leader of the Bosnian Serbs, an unusual character, qualified pyschiatrist, former football coach, convicted fraudster and latterly a leader in a nasty civil war who was instantly recogniseable with a mop of greying hair. He made a convenient lightning rod for the crimes of many. While the real power lay with Milosevic in Belgrade at the time there was no wish to pin charges on him.

Karadzic was indicted on war crimes in 1995 and disappeared from view in 1996. Since then much has changed in the region, not least the deposing, circus-like trial and death of Milosevic, the Kosovan war, allied bombing of Belgrade and desire of the EU amongst others to cement Serbia into a Western identity and prevent it becoming a Russian "bridgehead" into Europe.

There are therefore many good reasons for the capture of Karadzic. However they are probably different to the official ones. This does not seem so much about justice as a political agenda (why were comparable Croat and Bosnian leaders not been indicted ?; why has Kosovan organ harvesting from Serb prisoners gone largely uninvestigated and completely unpunished?; why is this conflict always presented in terms of good guys and bad guys when everyone seems pretty tarnished ?)

The simple answer to all this is this is not really about Radovan Karadzic but about a wider political game. The MI6 involvement in the apprehension of Mr. Karadzic is a pointer to this.

His impending extradition to the Hague may serve some notional point scoring or even be portrayed as "justice". However the reality seems more doubtful. Sending a 63 year old man to the Netherlands, who since 1996 has been living a double life and following a second career will in reality achieve very little. The Milosovec trial was a circus with the former Serbian leader exploiting the weaknesses of the institution to the maximum extent. The fact he died of a heart attack before a verdict was even passed seemed to be a final show of defiance. There seems some cultural misunderstanding that taking a Serb to the rarified legal environment of the Hague will in some make all Serbs see the error of their recent history and lead them on a "noble" path to EU membership. They may want EU membership if it offers new markets and new job opportunities but a trial in the Hague is more likely to harden than change their outlook. Mr. Karadzic has every chance of playing the part of a heroic Serb facing up to a rather conceited bunch of west European judges and running rings round them in the process.

At 63, with a variety of careers behind him and worldwide notoriety to boot, he has little to loose. How much healthier if he could be tried for his crimes in a Serbian court or Balkan region court. That would enable the whole region to face up to its troubled past and realise that evil has been perpetrated on all sides. That seems a more likely route to future peace.

Instead the unusual Mr. Karadzic will be blamed for all the evils of the balkans in the 1990s overlooking the fact that he probably never fired a gun. Of course leaders should be held responsible for their orders but in a civil war nothing would have happened but for thousands of volunteers on all sides seeking to avenge a troubled past and in their eyes pave the way to a brighter future.

Western commentators making ridiculous statements about a medical training or belief in alternative therapies paving the way for mass murder are well wide of the mark. This was a Balkan tragedy born out of a tortured history in which all sides were guilty. "Justice" will only exist if it is even handed and based on truth. While Radovan Karadzic was no angel, all sides share in the guilt for thousands of deaths in the 1990s. Croat and Bosnian nazis sowed the seeds for future conflict in the 1940s. Willing volunteers fanned the flames in the 1990s. The UN was useless and the EU no better leading to bloodshed on its doorstep.

Last but not least the human capacity for evil as well as good was exhibited by all. This is something that is possible in all of us in all countries. In cheering the capture of Radovan Karadzic let us not feel too smug about our own righteousness whether personally or in our own countries.

We all, like Radovan Karadzic, have the capactity for great evil as well as enormous good and can demonstrate them both in our lives. As Radovan Karadzic faces the rest of his life in a Dutch prison, let us not forget our own "inner Radovan".

NOTE: I am aware that some could interpret this article as being pro-Serbian. That is not the intention. For the record I have no links to Serbia, have never visited the country but have enjoyed a visit to Croatia and very briefly to Bosnia. I am trying to use this story to illustrate a wider point on the human condition and the inconsistent treatment of parties to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.


Max said...

I agree with what you are saying. It is far easier to pin all this on one man. That totally overlooks the reality of war and especially a civil war.

The Serbs have plenty to be angry about and mishanling RK will only make things worse. Good points about the Kosovan "harvesting" of Serb organs and the fact this wasn't the one sided war often presented in the media.

Have been reading your blog for a while and like your writing.


Anonymous said...

informative piece.

There were definitely no "good guys" in the Balkans in the 1990s.

I agree it is wrong to blame the Serbs for everything.

Luis said...

Thank you both.

Max -I agree the whole pursuit of war criminals is a very one sided affair.