Slobodan Milosevic, Esq.

Balkan truths: He's stirring up trouble at his trial, but that's a small price to pay.

February 26, 2002

FOR THE SAKE of argument, let's forget for a moment about achieving justice. From a strictly practical point of view, will the war-crimes trial of Slobodan Milosevic make things worse in the Balkans?

Plenty of Serbs think so. And, with the trial barely two weeks old, so do a growing number of those who worry that reconciliation may never gain a foothold in the former Yugoslavia.

Their reasoning goes like this: Mr. Milosevic is doing a surprisingly effective job of defending himself, skillfully playing into Serbs' resentments and fears that the whole world is against them. Rather than summoning up feelings of shame or regret toward his former victims - Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovar Albanians - he's whipping up the old Serbian hatreds and grievances instead.

Serbia handed Mr. Milosevic over to the Hague Tribunal after the United States and Europe made it clear that there would be no foreign aid for Yugoslavia until that happened. It wasn't the noblest of reasons. Zoran Djindjic, who as Serbia's prime minister engineered the extradition, faced considerable opposition. And now even Mr. Djindjic sounds as though he's regretting what he did. He told the German magazine Der Spiegel that the trial was turning into a circus, and that it was going to make it a lot harder for Belgrade to consider cooperating in the future - on other extraditions, for instance.

But the trial has two years yet to run. Mr. Milosevic, who is representing himself, has a fool for a lawyer. Serbs may be nurturing their anger and savoring his soapbox turn, but that will not last. His goal is to raise such serious doubts about his culpability for the crimes committed in the Balkans that a conviction becomes impossible. That's going to be a tall order.

Yesterday, Mr. Milosevic told the court, "I see somebody who is not guilty must prove he's not guilty here." That came after a prosecution witness testified that Serb fighters had burned a paralyzed woman alive in Kosovo in 1999, had murdered a baby and had razed nearly the entire village of Landovica.

The worriers fear that the trial will inflame passions. And so it may, and not just among Serbs. But progress and reconciliation in the Balkans will not come from forgetting. They will come from justice - and that, after all, is what this trial is really about.

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