The execution of Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic on Saturday was not only a setback for the war-crimes tribunal investigating him, but for the whole reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia, observers say.
The mandate of the international tribunal in The Hague is to "restore the rule of law" in the war-ravaged region. If anything, though, the gangland-style killing of Mr. Raznatovic in the lobby of a ritzy hotel in Belgrade reaffirms the fact that lawlessness continues to pervade much of the former Yugoslavia.
Raznatovic was the most notorious Serb paramilitary leader during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia from 1991-95. His Serbian National Guard, known as the Tigers, was notorious for its "ethnic cleansing" campaigns in both countries, but especially for one in Vukovar, Croatia, in which 250 Croats were removed from a hospital and murdered.
If he had stood trial, observers say he may have pointed the finger at Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic as the mastermind behind the Serb "ethnic cleansing" that left some 200,000 dead and 2 million displaced.
"We certainly regret there will not be the opportunity for Arkan to stand trial," says Paul Risley, a spokesman for the court. "But certainly, there were others who worked for him, and whose orders he carried out. So the investigation into his activities will continue."
As for Mr. Milosevic, who some analysts suspect of having Arkan killed, the Yugoslav leader is far from off the hook.
Mr. Risley says tribunal Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte is now considering expanding the war-crimes charges against Milosevic. He is already indicted for crimes allegedly committed last year in Kosovo, during the mass expulsion of Albanians, but not for his role in Bosnia.
The Dayton Peace Accord, which was signed in 1995 by the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia, bound Milosevic and the other leaders to "cooperate fully" with the international tribunal. Four years later, in its report titled "Is Dayton Failing?" the Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group described the "blatant non-compliance" by two of the three ethnic groups. Only the Bosnian Muslims have handed over their indicted, said ICG.
So far, 92 people have been indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia; 12 have been prosecuted and found guilty, and 36 are now in custody.
But after Milosevic, the tribunal's two most-wanted men remain at large: Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic. Mr. Karadzic is said to have a huge security detail, meaning that NATO forces in Bosnia would probably not be able to nab him without a gunfight.
It is precisely that fear - despite the occasional, highly publicized arrest of lesser-known war criminals - that deters these international forces from going after the Bosnian Serb leaders.
The impact of having these indicted war criminals still on the loose is enormous. Not only do refugees feel unsafe to return home, but some have developed deep-seated cynicism:
"The international community is investing billions of dollars trying to democratize Bosnia," says Anthony Borden, executive director of the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "But while these suspects remain at large, most people in Bosnia think it's a cock-and-bull story. Like, 'Don't tell me to love my neighbor, when you know where these criminals are, but won't pick them up.' "
Yet the killing of Arkan also probably turned up the heat on Karadzic and Mladic. They know who gave the orders. So, not only must they avoid the NATO-led forces, but also Serbs who may be out to silence them.
"Arkan's death should be remembered by those who have been indicted and who are still at large," Risley says. "Certainly, the safest place for them is really within the United Nations detention facility here.... If Arkan had turned himself in, he would be alive today."
The situation may become somewhat similar in Croatia. The recent death of nationalist President Franjo Tudjman - whom the West often criticized for harboring Croat war criminals - means that a crucial litmus test of the next president will be his willingness to cooperate with tribunal in The Hague. Elections will be held Jan. 24.
As for Serbia, no change in policy is expected while Milosevic is in power. Indeed, he has never permitted anyone to be extradited from Serbian soil. More ominously, the Arkan killing fits the pattern that has emerged in Serbia over the past several years - hundreds have been slain - including dozens of key figures from the Bosnian conflict - but the killers are never caught.
"The profile most at risk are those who have been with the regime, and either broken with or moved away from the regime," Mr. Borden says. "It's clear the government is very nervous about any alternate power base gaining a foothold and threatening the regime."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society