Mladic: The Serb Who Calls The Shots

Gen. Ratko Mladic, the man who has led the Serbs to military triumph in Bosnia, is a perplexing mix of exaggerated charm and sudden brutality. He once showed up as U.N. troops evacuated Muslims from a town his troops had destroyed, to offer a personal goodbye to the refugees. He favors fatigues, even at formal dinners, unadorned except for a marksmanship badge; he doesn't carry a sidearm, making him probably the only unarmed man in the entire Bosnian Serb army. But raise the subject of the war crimes of which he stands accused by the U.S. State Department, and the general flashes the anger that has fueled his campaign. Why do his snipers aim at civilians in Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns? "Cheap propaganda-we are only sniping at military targets," Mladic tells NEWSWEEK.

Brute or courtier, General Mladic is indisputably Bosnia's new kingpin, a man so ruthlessly dedicated to Serb nationalism-and so acute in his political calculations--that the Clinton administration may soon miss the days when President Slobodan Milosevic was considered the Serbs' most dangerous man. Mladic's military success has given him the clout to dictate policy, over the heads of both Milosevic and Serb party leader Radovan Karadzic. Mladic's denunciation of the Vance-Owen plan as a Croat-Muslim plot may have swung the Bosnian Serb parliament's vote against the plan-and against Milosevic. Mladic then coolly negotiated separate cease-fires with the Croats and Muslims, while the other two groups turned on each other.

Like most Bosnian Serbs, Mladic sees his people as embattled victims-both of the recent war and of history. He was born during World War II in Kalinovik, a small town in the traditionally nationalist Serb region of eastern Herzegovina. BY some accounts his father, a member of Tito's Partisans, was killed while attacking Bradina, the native village of Croat fascist leader Ante Pavelic. Mladic himself claims his father was killed in the village of Shunja-"a Muslim village," he pointedly adds. Either way, Mladic's hostility to Croats, Muslims and Germans seems to have been instilled early on, Nationalism was taboo in Tito's Yugoslavia, so Mladic kept those feelings to himself as he assembled an impressive officer's resume in the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). But when war erupted in the Balkans, so did the general's inner passions. As a JNA commander during the Serbo-Croat war in Croatia in 1991 General Mladic won support among Serbs by throwing his troops behind their bid for autonomy in the enclave of Krajina. Milosevic appointed him to take over the JNA in Bosnia a year ago.

Mladic knew Serb forces would be outnumbered by the Muslims and Croats, so he devised a strategy to exploit his overwhelming advantage in tanks and artillery. He laid siege to Sarajevo and hundreds of Muslim villages and towns. In return, he says, he watched from a Serb position as a neighbor burned down Mladic's house in Sarajevo, but he says he ordered his men to spare the neighbor's own house-just as, he says, the Serbs have spared the rest of Sarajevo: "We could take Sarajevo. But [the city] is as much theirs as it is ours." Such generous claims alternate with blanket ethnic denunciations of Croats and Muslims. Mladic claims, ludicrously, that both Muslims and Croats are better armed than the Serb forces. He is proud to take responsibility for the near destruction of Srebrenica and Zepa, largely Muslim towns. And he dismisses reports of atrocities by his troops as a Muslim media campaign that has "hypnotized" Western opinion.

Mladic now has the upper hand on his former patron. The stockpiles of weapons he has accumulated in Bosnia make his forces essentially immune to Milosevic's threat of a supply cutoff. And the general has outlasted and outsmarted Western negotiators at the bargaining table. "I was impressed by his nearly encyclopedic memory of all military maneuvers and casualties in the area," says one diplomat. It is now up to Mladic to dictate terms to everybody else: his Serb brothers in Serbia, the hapless Muslims, the Western powers. " War is a bad thing," he remarks without irony. "I'll be glad to be put out of a job." But with so much mopping up left to do, there's little chance of that.