BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - Tucked in an opulent government villa on Uzicka Street, guarded by soldiers from an army he led to four defeats and bolstered by three dozen civilian true believers milling around the front gate, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic awaits the final act of his ruinous appearance on the Balkan stage.
Nearly six months after he was ousted in a popular uprising, Milosevic is apparently headed for an arrest as the legal net tightens locally and internationally.
But what's a country to do with its ex-dictator? Ship him to The Hague in the Netherlands where he faces a war crimes indictment by a United Nations tribunal? Or let Serbian prosecutors try him in a Belgrade court?
"Personally, I would put him in a box [and express mail] him to The Hague," says Predrag Simic, an aide to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.
"More seriously, I would like to have him put on televised trial in Belgrade," Simic adds. "I wouldn't like to have his 12 to 15 percent support increased to 30 percent. I'd like his 12 percent reduced by trial, including The Hague taking part with the investigation."
Just when and where Milosevic will be brought to the dock are among the more pertinent questions swirling in a rumor-filled capital where politicians consistently give conflicting statements on the status of the investigation.
One Western diplomat expects that Milosevic will be arrested by the end of this month. Few doubt that Milosevic will face justice, whether to answer to local corruption charges in Belgrade or alleged war crimes before a U.N. tribunal.
Just how the fledgling national and federal governments handle the Milosevic case will determine much in Yugoslavia's drive to shed its past as a pariah. It is an awkward balancing act that confronts both the new Serbian government under Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and the man who controls the federal apparatus that binds Serbia and its partner Montenegro, Yugoslavia's President Kostunica.
Last week, Djindjic said the country could "organize a war crimes tribunal in Belgrade." Kostunica said Milosevic's arrest would take time and that the country faces greater problems.
Yesterday, Yugoslavia's federal justice minister, Momcilo Grubac, said the country could draft a law to smooth cooperation with the U.N. war crimes tribunal.
"The new authorities understand they have to cooperate with United Nations bodies, as Yugoslavia itself is a U.N. member," Grubac told Reuters, adding that the first draft of the law "could be done by the end of this month."
The reality is that Milosevic still has admirers who might be enraged if authorities move too aggressively against him, especially if he is sent to The Hague.
"We will defend him with our bodies," says Ruzica Stojanovic, 54, holding a Milosevic poster as she joins the vigil outside the former president's house.
Internationally, the U.S. Congress set a March 31 deadline for Belgrade to begin cooperating with the international war crimes tribunal or face suspension of $100 million in economic aid. Belgrade also could lose critical U.S. support for World Bank and International Monetary Fund assistance.
The Hague tribunal's chief prosecutor is adamant that Milosevic face a May 1999 indictment alleging that he directed an ethnic cleansing campaign against Kosovar Albanians. "It is totally legitimate for the local authorities to open investigations," said Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman for Carla del Ponte, the chief U.N. prosecutor, but "we have primacy for war crimes and genocide."
To outsiders who watched aghast for a decade as Milosevic's brand of Serbian nationalism ignited devastating wars in the Balkans, it may seem preposterous that he be tried locally for what may be no more than corruption charges. But that might be the only palatable way to bring him to justice in Serbia, despite a February opinion poll that indicated that 60 percent of the population would have no problem with him being tried at The Hague.
Local prosecutors are apparently pursuing several lines of inquiry against Milosevic for allegedly plundering the country's gold reserves, stashing cash in Cyprus, illegally purchasing a bungalow in the elite Dedinje district of Belgrade and election fraud.
Apparently, it is the bungalow charge that will stick.
Vladan Batic, Serbia's justice minister, said Monday that prosecutors are working on several cases against Milosevic, adding: "There will be enough evidence to accuse him of different things."
Batic declined to elaborate on the potential charges during a news conference at which Serbian Orthodox Bishop Artemije of Kosovo asked him why Milosevic had not been arrested.
"We must follow the legal way," Batic said. "If we do differently, that could be revolutionary justice. We don't want to presume Milosevic is guilty. We want to have clear and solid evidence, and a solid case."
One line of inquiry that could be opened may depend on the cooperation of Milosevic's former secret police chief, Rade Markovic.