Catching Karadzic

How did one of Europe's most wanted men give the security forces the slip for so long? Because the S

Looking a little like God in a Cecil B DeMille film, Radovan Karadzic was genuinely unrecognisable when he was arrested on a Belgrade bus last Monday evening. Yet even more astonishing was the news that he had been working as a crystal-rubbing therapist promoting well-being to audiences around Serbia. The killer as New Age healer - you couldn't make it up.

Several people who came into regular contact with Dragan David Dabic were clearly shocked to discover that he was in fact Karadzic. "It never occurred to me," said Goran Kojic, editor of Belgrade's Healthy Life magazine, who explained that Dabic had referred to himself as "a researcher in psychology and bioenergy". As recently as May, he made a public appearance as a therapist at a health festival, lecturing on "How to Enhance One's Own Bioenergies".

That was clearly the secret: do something so wildly ludicrous, grow an outrageous amount of facial hair, and you can give all those security forces the slip.

Er . . . not quite. The most perceptive comment in the wake of Karadzic's arrest was offered by Zlatko Lagumdzija, leader of Bosnia's Social Democratic Party. "It would appear," he observed, "that the state has decided to deal with Karadzic. The same state had earlier decided on the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic. This proves that Serbia has a strong state."

Lagumdzija knows Serbia is not a tinpot republic as caricatured in Tintin books. It has a developed infrastructure and its intelligence services are among the best-informed in Europe. The implication is clear: until now, Serbia was blocking the arrest of Karadzic.

Why has that changed? The short answer is that Serbia wants to curry favour with the European Union. In longhand, this is the culmination of a sophisticated and complex political operation by President Boris Tadic.

Early this year, the US and most EU states recognised the independence of Kosovo. The timing could hardly have been worse, as Serbia was scheduled to have presidential elections soon after and Tadic was under serious pressure from his main opponent, Tomislav Nikolic, the ultra-nationalist chief of the Serbian Radical Party, the country's largest political party.

Thus, in his campaign, President Tadic had to explain to the electorate why the people should vote for his pro-European orientation when the major European powers were engaged in stripping the country of part of its territory. Whether Kosovo should be independent was not at issue: but the timing and manner of the process was extremely badly handled by the EU and the US.

As if this wasn't enough, the Dutch government then announced it would block Serbia's continued progress towards EU accession until it handed over the two most wanted indictees to The Hague, Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic. With friends like the EU, Tadic needed no enemies in Serbia. With a huge effort, he defeated Nikolic in the presidential poll. But, like some Greek hero, he was confronted with an even more monstrous opponent as soon as he had slain the first.

Vojislav Kostunica was one of the great symbols of the movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. As Tadic and his Democratic Party were suffering the blows administered by a divided European Union, Kostunica was cosying up to the Russians and offering Serbs a very different future. The delicate parliamentary coalition that bound the two men collapsed in the spring. So, after the presidential elections, the nationalist and pro-European coalitions squared up for their latest showdown.

Kostunica switched partners from the Demo crats to the nationalist Radicals. The Dutch continued to refuse any negotiations with Serbia on an interim trade agreement, and elsewhere the EU was exhorting nations around the world to recognise Kosovo. In addition, the media in Europe and the United States continued to characterise Serbia as a bastion of unreconstructed nationalism.

When the vote came, the Serb electorate proved everyone wrong by giving a much larger portion of seats to the pro-European forces. Despite US ignorance, EU blundering, Russia's manipulation over Kosovo and Kostunica's switch, the Serbs rejected a nationalist solution.

The situation remained on a knife edge as neither nationalists nor pro-Europeans could form a government. The decisive party in the middle was the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), Slobodan Milosevic's creation. At first, Kostunica wooed the SPS intensely but then Tadic's wit and the international community weighed in. An almighty back-channel effort was made to persuade the SPS that its future lay not in its nationalist, dic tatorial past but in becoming a modern social-democratic party. Washington, Berlin, London, Paris and then, decisively, George Papandreou, the Greek opposition leader and president of the Socialist International, convinced the SPS it should move towards Europe.

And it worked. As soon as the coalition was formed, Tadic lost no time in dismantling the obstacles to Karadzic's arrest, including pensioning off Kostunica's ruthless ally Rade Bulatovic, head of the intelligence agency.

History will acknowledge Tadic's great achievement in arresting Karadzic. But we may never learn of the many others who have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the Tadic strategy worked.