Despite a Rebuff, Belgrade Moves Closer to Handing Over Milosevic

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War crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte meets officials in Belgrade

The first meeting between international war crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and Yugoslavia's new president Vojislav Kostunica appears to have ended badly Tuesday. Was this any surprise?

No, it was no surprise that their meeting didn't go well. Neither side really expected that it would. Carla Del Ponte didn't expect that that she would be able to fly back to The Hague with Slobodan Milosevic's head on a plate, and Kostunica didn't expect that he and Del Ponte would become good friends. But the most important thing here is that a dialogue has been established.

Why does Kostunica object to handing over Milosevic for trial in The Hague?

For one thing, he has previously questioned the legitimacy of the court, on the grounds that it was created by the U.N. Security Council rather than by the full membership in the General Assembly. But he has presumably dropped this objection by accepting a meeting with Del Ponte, which implies that he has now irrevocably recognized the court.

More importantly, he questions the court's reluctance to investigate what he calls war crimes committed by NATO during the 1999 bombing of Serbia, and also alleges that the court is biased against Serbs. But what he's really worried about is that cooperating too closely with the Hague tribunal right now would provide too much ammunition to his domestic political enemies. He's facing pressure from the West to hand Milosevic over, but on the other hand there's a lot of resistance, not only from the opposition, but even from members of his own coalition. That's why meeting with Del Ponte required a certain degree of courage from Kostunica, because there are a lot of people in the opposition and among government supporters who'd prefer to see these things buried. So the visit marked the beginning of the real debate in Serbia about war crimes.

What are the lines of debate?

For one thing, whether a Yugoslav citizen should be turned over to the Hague tribunal or be tried at home. But on a deeper level, it's about how, or whether, to confront crimes committed in the name of Serbia during the wars of the past decade.

How far-reaching is that discussion now?

It's not going to be easy, and it won't take days or weeks or even months. But it has begun in earnest. And I have no doubts of the final outcome — full cooperation with the Hague tribunal and the handing over of Milosevic. But not quite yet.

Is there a chance that Kostunica would try to resolve his dilemma by allowing Milosevic to leave?

That's extremely unlikely. Milosevic is currently under house arrest in Belgrade, and there's not much question that he should spend the next 20 years of his life in jail. The debate is really about where he should be tried first, in Belgrade or The Hague. So if it came out that Milosevic had slipped away and that Kostunica had allowed it, I don't think Kostunica would survive politically. Besides, I don't think Milosevic would find a country that would risk taking him in. There are other scenarios, though: There's a history of suicide in Milosevic's family, and it remains a possibility that he could react to the pressure of house arrest and impending prosecution by committing suicide. And then, of course, there's still a $5 million U.S. reward for his capture, which might tempt all kinds of adventurers to organize an attempt to snatch him. Belgrade may even have to put him in custody for his own protection.