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THE WORLD

Serbs Grow Weary of a Longtime Hero

Bosnia: Economic woes dim a town's defense of war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.

August 17, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — This small town with its pocket-sized Orthodox Church and tatty cafes is Karadzic country: a place where indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic has long been viewed as a savior, a saint.

But even here, where the Bosnian Serb leader lived at the height of his power during this country's brutal war, there is a weariness when people talk about Karadzic--as if they love him but are almost too tired to defend him.

That matters, because Pale is a place where people generally see the 1992-95 war through an exclusively Serbian lens, one in which the Serbs are the biggest victims, and not the perpetrators of "ethnic cleansing" against Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslims. But increasingly, even here, other factors dominate people's daily lives.

Hard economic times are casting a long shadow over people's views in Pale, long a Bosnian Serb stronghold. Also sapping the energy for defending Karadzic are political changes elsewhere in the former Yugoslav federation that make the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia less willing to be the sole holdout with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Karadzic and his top general, Ratko Mladic, remain at large, but many observers say these changes in the mood and politics of the area increase the likelihood that the pair could be arrested in a matter of months.

On a good day in Pale, Mira Jugovic makes $4 at her stall in the open-air market where she sells cheap clocks, watches and plastic toys. But there are many days when she doesn't earn a penny. The hardship has dimmed her thoughts of defending Karadzic and Mladic.

"Life is very bad now," she said. "People have lost too much."

Like those of many women in the market, her husband is out of work. She says she wouldn't object now if Karadzic and Mladic were tried on war crimes charges; she just wants to be sure that the justice is evenhanded and touches all ethnic groups, including the Muslims and Croats who control the other half of Bosnia.

"If Karadzic and Mladic should be arrested for what they did, then Croat and Muslim leaders should be arrested for what they did," Jugovic said, referring to the fact that leaders from all the ethnic groups in Bosnia are alleged to have committed war crimes.

Karadzic and Mladic were indicted by the Hague tribunal in July 1995 in what has been called the worst war crime in Europe since World War II: a massacre in Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia, like Pale, and a place that has become synonymous with the brutality of the Bosnian war.

Karadzic and Mladic are charged with genocide, accused of ordering the slaughter of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica who were summarily executed and thrown into mass graves. It is just one of the serious war crimes of which they stand accused.

Six years after their indictments, the men are believed to still be hiding here in Republika Srpska, as the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia is known.

These days, nowhere in the Balkans looks quite as poor as Republika Srpska. And that has made economic politics almost equal to the still pervasive politics of ethnic hatred.

"Bosnia is like the U.S. during the 1992 campaign--it's the economy, stupid," said Thomas J. Miller, the American ambassador to Bosnia, referring to Bill Clinton's chief focus when he ran for president during the U.S. recession of the early 1990s.

The economic status of Bosnia hovers near the bottom of the poor states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But the Bosnian Serb area is indisputably poorer and has had higher inflation than the rest of the Balkans, according to a 2000 report by the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment is estimated at 40% to 50%, and gross domestic product in 1999 was slightly more than $4.4 billion, lower than anywhere in the Balkans except Albania.

Even so, it is widely believed that Karadzic still pulls some strings in Republika Srpska through the political party he led until 1996, when he went into hiding to escape arrest.

His Serbian Democratic Party remains the largest vote-getter here. Western officials in Bosnia believe that only when Karadzic is gone will his party loosen its grip on virtually all aspects of the economy.

"As long as Karadzic is out there, he represents the old nationalist, statist, separatist politics where the parties fed off these state companies and didn't distribute the benefits to the people," Miller said.

The bad economic times may contribute to people's willingness to come forward with tips about Karadzic's whereabouts. They also may prompt the cooperation of Republika Srpska's government, because it is strapped for foreign investment and Western aid.

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