Belgrade defiant in face of war crimes charges

Yugoslav officials take hard line, criticize court

citizens react nervously

May 28, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- They were defiant and dismissive, unbowed and yet a little unsettled.

Yesterday, Yugoslavia's politicians and citizens -- those who knew about it -- sought to come to terms with war crimes indictments issued against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four of his top associates.

Never before had one country been forced to confront the fact that its sitting president was charged with crimes against humanity by an international tribunal.

This day was seemingly eight years in the making, as Milosevic stood at the center of ethnic conflicts that caused deaths, damage and the virtual destruction of Yugoslavia. For all that time, the man who aroused and unleashed the passions that helped disintegrate Yugoslavia has been treated as the only person who could stop the upheaval.

Now he stands formally accused of committing crimes against humanity.

But yesterday's indictments went further in striking at the heart of the regime, taking on not only Milosevic but his chief aides: Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, Yugoslav Deputy Premier Nikola Sainovic, Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojilkovic and Yugoslav army chief Dragoljub Ojdanic.

While the news made headlines around the world, it filtered only slowly at first to people with access to international news via satellite. By the end of the day it was common knowledge in the streets of Belgrade and mentioned briefly on the nightly television newscast.

Officially, the government took the line that the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague does not have the legal authority to issue the indictments.

Yugoslav minister without portfolio Goran Matic said the tribunal "is a specific inquisition court used by the United States to obliterate sovereignty of countries they don't like."

What's happenning in Kosovo isn't a war against the people of the Serbian province; it is a war against the Kosovo Liberation Army, "an operation against terrorists," he said.

Asked what reaction Milosevic and his associates had to the charges now that they could face arrest nearly anywhere in the world, Matic said: "Why would they react to a private court?"

Ivica Dacic, spokesman for Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, was even fiercer in his criticism of the tribunal.

"All of this is directed by NATO, and all the eyes of the world are watching NATO's court," he said. "The Hague is a push-button court, and the prosecutor of the court [Louise Arbour] should be on the list of war criminals."

Dacic said the court was "participating in genocide," and that the indictments amounted to a "prosecution against all people" in Serbia.

Vojislav Seselj, Serbia's deputy prime minister and a fierce nationalist who once headed a paramilitary unit, questioned the timing of the indictments that fell just before an expected visit to Belgrade by Russia's Balkan envoy, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin.

Seselj alleged that the charges against Milosevic and "some outstanding politicians" were made "to prevent the possibility of taking part in the negotiating process."

"On the one hand, they [NATO] say they support the political process, and on the other hand, they prevent us from taking part in that process," he said.

Claiming that the tribunal works under "direct American orders," Seselj said: "At this moment, the Americans have a political need to proclaim Milosevic a war criminal. They can satisfy this need easily. They just order the Hague tribunal what to do."

Vuk Draskovic, the relative moderate ousted last month as Yugoslavia's deputy premier, was cautious in his remarks. He said the indictments were a "political provocation" and "aimed to undermine the peace initiative." He urged Milosevic to "strengthen" peace efforts "in the interests of our nation, our state and stability of this region."

Goran Svilanovic, president of the opposition Citizen's Union party, warned against a media campaign that would seek to paint all Yugoslavians with the brush of accusations against Milosevic.

"The reality is, there will never be a collective blame or responsibility," he said. "Blame belongs to the decision-maker."

He also said there was no chance of a popular uprising and no figure on the horizon who could take over for Milosevic.

Svilanovic added that most people here had little confidence in the tribunal.

"The Hague tribunal did not fulfill its aim," he said.

Adding to the bizarre nature of the event is that it focused on a society where mobsters and politicians sometimes mix, and where war criminals have visited before.

One of the most prominent of these lately has been another indicted as a war criminal, Veljko Raznjatovic. Known as Arkan, he led a militia that is accused of atrocities in earlier conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia.

As news of the imminent indictment came out late Wednesday, Arkan was in a hotel bar with international journalists watching the European soccer championship, rooting for Germany's Bayern Munich against England's Manchester United.

"[Milosevic's] no war criminal," Arkan said.

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