Good riddance to a master manipulator
July 23, 2008 at 7:48 AM EDT
In the fall of 1991, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was a guest on a live news program for Sarajevo Television. Pressed to support his claims that Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina were being discriminated against, he named a Serb family in Zenica that had been evicted by its Muslim neighbours.
He also gave the street name, the building number, and even the floor on which the family in question had been living. All the details were correct except for the small fact that the Serb family had not been evicted at all - as a film crew from Sarajevo Television later discovered and reported. Of course, by then it was too late. Mr. Karadzic had achieved his aim.
Such tactics were typical for Mr. Karadzic, the war-crimes fugitive who was captured Monday. A psychiatrist by profession, he knew well how to manipulate people.
Everything the Bosnian Serb leader needed for a successful career came from Belgrade: advice, money, intelligence and military support. But he knew well that all this would not be enough without media support. So he began blocking any electronic media that might challenge him or provide his fellow Serbs with reports of which he did not approve. In 1991, a Yugoslav Army unit occupied the broadcast centre of Sarajevo Television and turned over its signal to Belgrade. Thus the Bosnian cities where most Serbs lived could not receive any other broadcasts, leaving the cities' inhabitants supremely vulnerable to manipulation.
Meanwhile, Mr. Karadzic's language was aggressive and he rejected facts that did not correspond to his beliefs. When unwanted facts did crop up, he quickly turned the discussion to speculation. When opponents stuck to the facts, he went on the attack.
I remember one incident early on in the war. A Muslim paramilitary soldier, seeking to prevent the killings of civilians by the Yugoslav Army, set up explosives at the Visegrad Dam and issued a statement asking for a telephone conversation with the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Alija Izetbegovic. The soldier threatened to blow up the dam if his phone call was not broadcast live on television.
I was the head of Sarajevo Television at the time, and Mr. Karadzic called me. "Mr. Pejic," he said, "if you decide to put this conversation on the air, I will bomb your transmitter!"
Nonetheless, I was concerned about the villages that were threatened with disaster if the dam was destroyed and ignored the threat. Minutes after the phone conversation aired, Mr. Karadzic's forces began shelling the broadcast centre. The dam was not blown up. The lives of civilians in the valley were saved. Our transmitter was heavily damaged.
When a leader of Croatian Serbs was arrested, Mr. Karadzic threatened violence if he was not released. When a sniper was captured in Sarajevo and accused of killing civilians, Mr. Karadzic justified the murders: "We had to attack the Muslims to prevent them from attacking Serbs." The Bosnian Serb leader always spoke in terms of "us" against "them." He was a great polarizer.
He had invited me to dinner once in late 1990, in an obvious bid to persuade me to join his camp. When I refused, he immediately changed course and publicly accused me of desiring the collapse of Yugoslavia. This was typical of the man. If you were not subordinate to him, you were his enemy.
Strangely, Mr. Karadzic had a sort of grudging respect for the other ethnic groups that had coalesced into camps similar to the one he had formed with Bosnian Serbs. He saw these groups as a sort of vindication of his own ethnically based worldview, and as evidence that Serbs had to follow him in order to secure their rights.
What he really hated, though, were the Serbs who refused to join him. Anyone who refused to be reduced to a mere ethnic identity in an endless primitive blood feud was his real enemy.
In the end, I think, Mr. Karadzic miscalculated. His dream of keeping all Serbs in one state failed, and now they are scattered across five independent countries. His closest associates ended up in The Hague or hiding as fugitives. Slowly, but surely, his fellow Serbs are moving away from his radical nationalist ideology.
So now all eyes are on Serbia. It will be instructive to see how the country's leadership and its people handle the arrest of Mr. Karadzic. The radical nationalists are outraged, but will anyone join them? The leaders of the Bosnian Serbs have said the arrest is a relief. Serbia's Socialist Party, which is part of the pro-Western coalition government, has said it will not "allow anyone to manipulate them at a time when all parties are in favour of co-operation with The Hague." My feeling is that the reaction will show Mr. Karadzic is not important any more. Life has moved on. Nenad Pejic was program director of Sarajevo Television before and at the beginning of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is now associate director of broadcasting at RFERL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.