JUSTICE was sidelined when international negotiators pushed for a peace agreement in the former Yugoslavia.
But with the smooth implementation of the Dayton accord, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is being pushed to make one of his biggest defensive chess moves: prosecution of suspected war criminals.
A skillful tactician, Mr. Milosevic nonetheless finds himself in a bind: Either deliver suspects to the UN War Crimes Tribunal and be rewarded with access to international financial institutions - the key to his country's post-sanctions recovery - or side with a Serbian public that believes the indictments largely pin blame for the Bosnia war on Serbs or Milosevic himself.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher was in Belgrade Feb. 4 dangling the cash-for-cooperation stick and carrot. Milosevic reportedly indicated he may be willing to turn in Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, but refuses to hand over Gen. Ratko Mladic, who is wildly popular with Serbs.
But nipping at the president's heels are fervent Serb nationalists who seek to discredit him, led by his one-time ally Vojislav Seselj.
Leader of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, Mr. Seselj is raising the dicey question, ''Where was Slobo?''
If Milosevic permits any Serb to be extradited to the Tribunal, Seselj vows to release evidence that would place the smoking gun squarely in Milosevic's hands.
''It wouldn't make sense to prosecute any Serb and not prosecute Milosevic,'' Seselj told the Monitor, his booming voice filling his small Belgrade office.
Karadzic and Mladic have been indicted by the Tribunal on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. But Milosevic has not been indicted.
No one may have greater insight into Milosevic's wartime dealings than Seselj. He was among the leading proponents of the use of force to create a ''Greater Serbia,'' the failed bid to join Serbia with Serb-inhabited lands in Croatia and Bosnia.
In the early stages of the war, Seselj's radicals and Milosevic's Socialist Party formed a ruling coalition. Milosevic reportedly rarely acted without Seselj's endorsement, and gave Seselj the go-ahead to organize a notorious paramilitary force and funnel arms and cash to Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.
But the alliance cracked in January 1993, when Milosevic supported the Vance-Owen Plan, which would have divided Bosnia into ethnic-based provinces. Milosevic sought to ease the UN sanctions imposed in June 1992. Seselj accused him of betraying Serb interests and quickly evolved into his fiercest rival.
Indeed, in November 1993 Milosevic had 18 members of the Radical Party's militant wing arrested on charges of murder, rape, kidnapping, and illegal arms possession. Seselj himself was jailed for four months last year for demonstrating against Milosevic's Bosnia policies, and he has been denied exposure on state-run television.
Now Seselj is relishing the opportunity for payback. He has swapped his military fatigues for a suit and tie, to focus on his political ambitions. He charges that Milosevic supplied men and weapons to aid rebel Bosnian Serbs even after officially withdrawing his Army in May 1992. ''I have proof that we [continued to] collect and send volunteers to the front at his request, and that our commandos fought under his orders,'' Seselj says.
He also claims Milosevic steered the activities of Karadzic and Mladic and paid the salaries of their commanders. Seselj declined, however, to back up any of his charges with documentation.
Seselj says he'll testify on behalf of Karadzic and Mladic if either is handed over to the Tribunal. Tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier confirmed that a man ''claiming to be'' Seselj had offered to testify, but declined to elaborate. ''Anyone claiming to have information relevant to our investigation is welcome.''
If he were to testify, Seselj would run the risk of implicating himself. Several Western journalists and human-rights groups have linked him to the notorious paramilitary units that conducted ''ethnic cleansing'' campaigns in Croatia in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1992 and 1993.
As a result, few expect him to actually take the stand. Analysts say Seselj's accusations - though they may be true - are purely political. And as the nationalistic tone of Serbian society has trailed off, so too has Seselj's popularity. His attacks come at a time when Milosevic's Socialist Party is surging in popularity and prepping for its annual convention in March.
''Seselj's probably using [the accusations] to settle his accounts with Milosevic,'' says Predrag Simic, director of the Institute of International Politics and Economics in Belgrade. ''But who controlled whom at what time is difficult to determine.''
Standing up to the West may also score points for Seselj at home, as a public already brought to its knees by sanctions views extradition of war-crime suspects as another blow to national pride.
While the Christopher-led US delegation found Milosevic surprisingly cooperative Feb. 4, Serb government officials contend that extraditions would be unconstitutional; prosecution of suspects could take place in Serbia.
Observers believe Milosevic will either establish trials at home or give up only those political rivals who are vulnerable and expendable, such as Karadzic or militant members of Seselj's party.
And through his masterful use of the media, Milosevic will surely be able to convince the public it's the right thing to do.
''To the untrained, uneducated ear, this theory that the whole nation is on trial sounds plausible,'' says Zarko Korac, of the opposition party, Civic Alliance of Serbia. ''But if there are trials, just the opposite will be true; we're going to see who did what, and that it was not the whole nation.''