Radovan Karadzic: all the signs of a psychopath
The First Post’s psychoanalyst is reminded of Goering, who also relished attention
In 1990, Radovan Karadzic said: "We don't want a single tear of a single child shed over the new state organisation, let alone a drop of blood." Today, 19 years later, the 'Beast of Bosnia' goes on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia accused of genocide and war crimes. Not only did Karadzic's declaration of peaceful intent prove to be false, it heralded a future of lies and deception that could only be the work of a psychopath.
Dr Karadzic, founder of the Serbian Democratic Party, was indicted 14 years ago and went into hiding for over a decade. He was arrested on July 21, 2008 on a bus in Belgrade, disguised by a thick beard and glasses. He had been posing as a doctor of alternative medicine under the name Dr Dragan David Dabic.
Now, aged 64, Karadzic is charged with the massacre in 1995 of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Sbrebrenica, the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War. He is also charged with organising the siege of Sarajevo, during which at least 10,000 people died in the sniping and shelling of the Bosnian capital by Bosnian Serb forces, and of masterminding the widespread use of torture and sexual abuse on prisoners of war.
It will be interesting to witness Karadzic's performance in court because he is a master showman and convincing conman. While the trial is expected to run for three years, Karadzic has been busy trying to buy time, partly, it is assumed, as a way of continuing to enjoy the relative comfort of the remand facilities of the court before the prospect of life imprisonment. His appeal for an extension of up to ten months to allow further time to prepare his defence was rejected by the court last week.
Karadzic left his birthplace, Montenegro, in 1960 to study medicine in Sarajevo. He was 15 and described as convivial with a wide circle of friends drawn from the various ethnic groups in the city - Serbs, Croats and Muslims. He was also described as slightly shady - living on credit at the local shops and playing poker for small stakes, paying his way through medical school.
He was raised by his mother in a small mountain village while his father, a member of the Chetniks, was imprisoned by the post-war Communist regime for most of Karadzic's boyhood. It is possible that his father's long years of imprisonment may have fuelled Karadzic’s ambition. In a poem, written in 1971 and dedicated to his father, Karadzic wrote, "Let's go down to the town and kill some scum". There was clearly some delinquent alliance with his father that Karadzic fostered in his mind.
Karadzic['s intelligence and ability to win people over were considerable factors in his soaring career. From Sarajevo, he studied as a postgraduate first in Denmark and then in 1975 for a year at Columbia University in New York. He published his first work of poetry at the age of 23 and later married a wealthy fellow psychiatrist, Ljilijana Zelen, whose family undoubtedly helped him to become established.
Karadzic was known to falsify documents for his patients in return for bribes in order to supplement his income - a common practice among some professionals under the Yugoslav Socialist government. Karadzic's shady dealings first came to light when, working as a psychiatrist, he was accused in 1984 of embezzling money from his Belgrade hospital to build a ski chalet in Pale, a Bosnian village 30 kilometres east of Sarajevo. He served 11 months of a three-year sentence.
People who knew Karadzic during this time claim that it was his experience in prison and the power he obtained from his wife's money that changed him. After his release from jail, Karadzic took on a new image, wearing designer suits and taking up with members of the secret police and the underworld. His political views, previously with no allegiance to any particular ideology, became markedly Serbian nationalist. The groundwork was being laid for Karadzic's entry into the political arena.
It was the Serb nationalist author, Dobrica Cosic, later to become President of Yugoslavia, who recommended that the Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic - the last high-profile Serb nationalist to stand trial at The Hague - appoint Karadzic as the leader of the Serbian Democratic Party.
In an interview following his appointment, Karadzic gave the disingenuous reply, "Everyone in Yugoslavia knows that I have never had any ambition to become a political leader. Every other politician refused to represent the party. It was too dangerous. I hoped that after the elections I would be free of any political function, but that was not possible... They [the Croats] were preparing to kill us, to kill our people. The decision had to be made to organise the army."
In exaggerating the threat posed by opponents to the SDS, Karadzic presented himself as a reluctant hero who stepped into the breach in order to rescue the Serbian nationalists from extermination. As we now know, this was Karadzic's projection onto his opponents of his own intention to exterminate them.
It is ironic that Karadzic claims he was granted political immunity by Richard Holbrooke, the former US assistant secretary of state responsible for negotiating the 1995 Dayton accord that ended the war in Bosnia. Holbrooke denies this and describes Karadzic as "the primary intellectual architect of the ethnic cleansing".
However, unlike Hitler, who instigated ethnic cleansing as part of a highly developed political ideology, Karadzic's ethnic cleansing was not founded on such evolved principles and seemed to be derived more directly from his own megalomania. Ideology was used by Karadzic as a rationale to dress up what was effectively thuggery.
What is especially chilling about Karadzic's performance throughout the Bosnian war is the outright lies he told and the way in which he revelled in the increasing attention he received from the international political community. In 1992, at the start of the siege on Sarajevo, Karadzic asserted, "We don't have a single sniper in Sarajevo... Only the Muslims use snipers."
As Karadzic's power grew, he was invited to London and Switzerland for peace talks. Lord Owen, who had mediated in the Balkans, wrote of Karadzic, "At times I fell into the trap of underestimating Karadzic... [He was] better than any other Serb except Milosevic at negotiating, usually keeping cool, knowing when to give ground to protect vital interests and on occasion producing imaginative solutions." Karadzic won praise from his diplomatic colleagues for arguing the fine points of agreements – agreements he had no intention of fulfilling. His ability to con people was never more evident.
Karadzic enjoyed flaunting his power publicly. In 1994 he invited a guest from Russia, the ultra-nationalist poet Eduard Limonov, to the front lines in order to fire a few anti-aircraft rounds on the populace of Sarajevo. Limonov fired without hesitation and the entire episode was televised.
Another television moment showed Karadzic playing chess with his military commander Ratko Mladic with the racket of 50,000 Muslims being shelled in the background. It is Karadzic's explicit pleasure in advertising these acts that so strongly suggests the mentality of a psychopath.
Journalists who have seen Karadzic at The Hague comment on his charisma. He is about to receive the greatest attention he will ever win from the world. Perhaps this is what Karadzic has sought, through his criminal acts, all along?
There is a haunting parallel with Hermann Goering's performance at the Nuremberg trials. Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief US translater, whose obituary appeared in the Times last Thursday, singled out Goering as charming and slippery.
Goering seemed to relish the attention he received at the trial. There was no recognition of the horror of his actions or of their impact on others. On the contrary, the trial was an opportunity to publicise and defend his achievements.
Goering, it seems, did not fall into Hannah Arendt's category of the "banality of evil" that is committed by ordinary people. Instead, we see the psychopath who cannot differentiate between right and wrong, who is incapable of concern and guilt, and whose primary aim is to feel powerful, instilling awe and terror in others. Their triumph is to con people into believing they are "normal".
Karadzic's training in psychiatry would have helped him to develop this persona and to place him firmly on the other side of madness.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After this item was posted, Radovan Karadzic yesterday failed to turn up for his trial, saying he needed at least another nine months to prepare his defence. The hearing was then adjourned. However, today the judge said the trial could go ahead in Karadzic's absence, explaining that he must face the consequences of his decision to stay away. ·
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