Serbia's chance to redeem itself internationally

April 08, 2001|By Dusko Doder

WASHINGTON -- The end of Slobodan Milosevic's 13-year rule dragged on for six months with all the elements of a Balkan farce. The man who no longer was president lived in the presidential mansion while the new president continued to reside in his two-bedroom apartment in downtown Belgrade.

The new president, Vojislav Kostunica, was not informed when the Serbian police finally moved to arrest his predecessor. In fact, an army unit under Mr. Kostunica's control, blocked the first police attempt to serve an arrest warrant. A tense standoff and dramatic threats followed.

In the end, Mr. Milosevic surrendered -- with a whimper rather than a bang. There is sufficient evidence of corruption and blatant abuses of power to ensure that he spends the rest of his days in jail.

But for Serbia -- and also for the international community -- the main issue remains Mr. Milosevic's alleged war crimes. He is considered to have been the protagonist behind the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s which left more than 200,000 people dead and millions homeless.

Mr. Milosevic has been indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague for his role in the 1999 Kosovo war. Curiously, he has not been indicted for the wars earlier in the decade in Croatia and Bosnia, where his actions were far more culpable.

In preparing Mr. Milosevic's trial, the Serbs have an opportunity to re-examine the dark side of their recent history. They must confront crimes -- especially those in Bosnia and in Croatia -- which were carried out in their name. A slow process of national catharsis should be allowed to take place without constant hectoring from Washington.

This is bound to be traumatic experience for Serbia's fledgling democracy.

So far, the reformists around Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic have found it difficult to substantiate war crime charges against the dictator. Polls show that a majority of Serbs want Mr. Milosevic to be tried on war crimes charges and even delivered to The Hague.

But there is a segment of the population, including Mr. Kostunica and other nationalist intellectuals, which is covertly opposed to having Mr. Milosevic tried for war crimes. Mr. Kostunica is a decent man. He was not a Milosevic supporter. But as a nationalist, he backed the struggle of Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia. Western demonization of the Serbs coupled with punitive sanctions and NATO bombardment of Serbia reinforced his sense of grievance.

But Mr. Djindjic is a modern man. He was educated in the West and has come to believe that Serbia should undergo a national catharsis and quickly join the process of European integration. He stands for a different world from Mr. Kostunica's inward-looking nationalism.

The conflict between these two men is a struggle for the soul of post-Milosevic Serbia. The Milosevic trial is likely to be the forum.

The United States would do well to stay out of it and let the Serbs sort things out. However, Hague prosecutors should cooperate with Serbian authorities and provide them with available evidence of Mr. Milosevic's many misdeeds.

One potential witness is the former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic, who is already in a Hague prison. An even more significant witness is Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, whom U.S. forces under the NATO flag in Bosnia could easily have arrested during the last five years. Former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic has said that he had heard Mr. Milosevic -- in his presence -- issue orders to Mr. Karadzic by phone during the initial phase of the Bosnian war.

While most of the key potential witnesses were gunned down in Belgrade streets during the last years of the Milosevic regime, there are top military and police officers around who could provide evidence against the former dictator. The former chief of staff, Gen. Zivota Panic, who ran the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, lives in Belgrade.

Since Mr. Milosevic's future now leads to courtrooms and jail cells, other witnesses in time are likely to step forward. Serbia can wash off its besmirched reputation. Only if it fails, the United States and other nations must insist that Mr. Milosevic be delivered to The Hague.

Dusko Doder is an independent journalist who specializes in the Balkans and Russia.

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