Milosevic Trial Challenges Serbs and the West

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A supporter screams after kissing a poster of Slobodan Milosevic

In the end, Western money sealed Slobodan Milosevic's fate. In limbo between a Yugoslav Federal government leery of handing its former president over to a war crimes tribunal and a Serb national government wanting to receive aid contingent on a handover, the Serbs short-circuited the federal government's legal process and unceremoniously packed the former strongman off to stand trial in The Hague.

The Yugoslav federal government had been uneasy about sending Milosevic for trial in a court considered by President Vojislav Kostunica to be biased against Serbs. Authorities appeared set to delay the process by allowing a Federal appeals court — whose judges had been Milosevic appointees, and had voted to annul last year's election result precipitating the insurrection that drove him from office — to challenge the validity of last weekend's government decree facilitating the strongman's extradition. But when the Federal court said no, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic — Kostunica's arch-rival and an enthusiastic advocate of a Hague trial for Milosevic — convened an emergency cabinet meeting. Less than five hours later, the man who had presided over a series of bloody tribal wars and his country's demise into an impoverished kleptocracy, was simply gone, unlikely ever to return to the homeland he had almost destroyed.

Serb opinion turned against Slobo

The backlash was fierce — an enraged crowd gathered in downtown Belgrade, loudly protesting and beating up foreign journalists — but contained: There were never more than about 2,000 people gathered in Central Square in support of Milosevic, in contrast to the hundreds of thousands that had gathered there in the past to demand his ouster. And although President Kostunica had warned that he would resign from his ruling coalition if Yugoslavian law was not observed in the case, he gave no indication that he would allow the issue to force fresh elections.

Kostunica's prevarication had been partly based on his hope of winning over residual Milosevic supporters for his eventual election showdown with Djindjic. But by the time a little black van drove inconspicuously away from the Central Prison bearing the former strongman to face his accusers, the number of Serbs opposed to that outcome was surprisingly small. Their decision to extradite may have been driven by an overriding concern with their country's desperate financial plight, but Belgrade's post-Milosevic leadership has done a remarkable job over the past year in swaying Serbian public opinion solidly behind his extradition. In the end, even Kostunica proclaimed sending Milosevic for trial a lesser evil if the price was the withholding of Western aid.

An epic victory

Milosevic's trial, for war crimes in Kosovo and also in Bosnia and Croatia, will be hailed as an epic victory by advocates of an international system of justice to deal with war criminals. The power of economic sanctions was underlined by the fact that the Milosevic was first arrested to meet a deadline set by the U.S. congress, and was then extradited to coincide with a donor conference at which Western assistance was to be conditional on Belgrade's cooperation with the Hague tribunal. And that success will spur the efforts of those seeking redress for crimes committed all over the world by those whose access to the corridors of power appeared to buy them immunity. Among those least likely to have slept much on Thursday night are Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Serb leaders most wanted for atrocities committed in Bosnia, who had eluded justice in no small part because of Milosevic's patronage. The two men are thought to be hiding out in Bosnia, and now that the Serb authorities have acted to deliver Milosevic, NATO will presumably be emboldened to hunt down his enforcers.

Milosevic's departure, even if it is followed shortly by the extradition of Karadzic, Mladic and others on the wanted list, doesn't quite close the brutal chapter of Balkan history that might be termed the Milosevic era. While Serbs have become increasingly comfortable with blaming Milosevic and his henchmen for many of the crimes against humanity that occurred in the Balkan wars of the past decade, Serbian society has only just begun to pose the more uncomfortable questions about collective culpability. But the trial will be a challenge to the international community, too. It was relatively uncontroversial, in the end, to bring economic pressure to bear to deliver the universally reviled Milosevic to trial after he'd been driven out of power. But it won't always be that way when it comes to other deserving candidates for war crimes trials. And the international community's actions to ensure Milosevic's delivery to The Hague create a universal precedent that won't be easily ignored in the future, no matter how inconvenient to the political expedients of the day.

— With reporting by Andrew Purvis/Vienna, Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade and William Dowell/New York