A trial for Serbia at The Hague

The international war-crimes tribunal begins trying Milosevic Tuesday.

As former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic prepares to go on trial in The Hague next week on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, even his enemies in the new reformist Yugoslav government are thinking of helping him.

Their aim is not to save Mr. Milosevic. Rather, they hope to salvage something of Serbia's tattered reputation in a trial at the international tribunal that they fear will write the definitive history of the Balkan wars of the 1990s and condemn the Serbian nation, not just its president, for the atrocities that were committed.

"If Milosevic is sentenced for aggression and genocide, since he was president of the state, the state would take responsibility," says Predrag Simic, a top aide to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. "That poses a dilemma. Should we just let the trial go on without any participation by the state?"

Last week the speaker of the Yugoslav parliament, Dragoljub Micunovic, called on the government to create a legal team to take part in the trial. "The genocide accusation ... risks repercussions on the state," he said. "We must be able to defend ourselves against certain accusations."

Hoping to capitalize on this new mood, Milosevic's lawyer, Zdenko Tomanovic, said Wednesday that he would ask the Yugoslav and Serbian governments to give him documents that could bolster Milosevic's case.

This stance reflects a widespread feeling among Serbs that the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is a political court, biased against them.

That feeling, in turn, undermines Belgrade's willingness to cooperate with the court by handing over suspects, even though hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed international aid depend on such assistance.

The US Congress has given Belgrade a March 31 deadline for cooperating with the court, in exchange for US aid and US support for continued assistance from international lending organizations.

"The DOS knows it cannot get around the tribunal; it is just a question of how they cooperate," says one Western diplomat here, referring to the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition that took power in October 2000 after Milosevic's fall.

Zoran Djindjic, the premier of Serbia, the dominant republic in what is left of Yugoslavia, told the daily Danas newspaper on Thursday that he hoped four men indicted with Milosevic and currently living in Serbia would go to The Hague voluntarily. "If they don't do so, we should find a solution to get them there," he added.

"Someone will have to go," says Nenad Stepanovic, a respected columnist with the weekly Vreme magazine. "But this way of cooperation is not good, making Yugoslav war criminals our only export product, all we can sell to the West."

Though Serbia has arrested and handed over four mid-level suspects besides Milosevic, any attempt to go after the most wanted men, such as Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander believed to be living in Serbia under military protection, would threaten the civilian government's fragile control over the military and police, analysts here say. (Mladic and another indictee on the run, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is believed to be hiding in the Serb-controlled area of Bosnia or in Montenegro, are particularly wanted for the 1995 massacre of an estimated 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.)

Ordering police to arrest former Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, for example, one of Milosevic's co-indictees, "would be very dangerous," says the Western diplomat. "If the military got their back up, there could be a revolt." Sending the other three co-indictees to The Hague would also be complicated, Serb officials worry. One, Milan Milutinovic, has immunity under Serbian law, since he is the president of Serbia. The two others, Nikola Sainovic and Vlajko Stojiljkovic, are members of the federal Yugoslav parliament, where the DOS does not enjoy the majority needed to lift their parliamentary immunity.

The authorities are dragging their feet also because the tribunal is so widely unpopular and mistrusted, political observers here suggest. "Politicians seek some benefits from their actions," says Srdjan Bogosavljevic, head of the country's largest polling organization. "Anyone who promotes The Hague would just lose popularity to someone else."

Meanwhile, there are fears that Milosevic, whose support has fallen to about 12 percent of the population, could benefit from the public platform that his trial will afford him. "Milosevic has a real chance to appear in Serb eyes as a martyr, a victim of NATO and the new political order," says Mr. Stepanovic.

"For Milosevic, this trial is complete theater," says the Western diplomat. "If he proves more skillful than the prosecution, there is a danger that the ideas and crowd he represents will get a bit of new wind."

Though government officials have no sympathy for their old nemesis, some - including Mr. Simic - fear that if the prosecution presents recent Balkan history in what they consider too black-and-white a fashion, blaming Serbia alone for the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the wars of succession, it could inflame nationalist sentiment.

In preliminary tribunal hearings, chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte has portrayed Milosevic as the spearhead of a nationalist drive for an ethnically pure Greater Serbia that provoked the bloodshed. Simic sees him as a former Communist who fought wars as part of a desperate bid to hold on to power.

"My fear is that the shortcomings of the indictment ... could provoke a backlash here," says Simic. "We are just at the beginning of economic reform, prices are skyrocketing and wages are lagging behind. People are nervous, and they tend to be vulnerable to populist rhetoric."

At the same time, he fears the impact of the trial in The Hague on future judicial proceedings, such as claims for war reparations brought by Croatia and Bosnia against Yugoslavia in the International Court of Justice. "It is a very practical issue for us," he says.

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