Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica recently indicated that he is prepared to allow the United Nations' international war crimes tribunal to reopen a Belgrade office to gather evidence against alleged war criminals.
That would be an important first step, diplomats and analysts say, in confronting the crimes perpetrated in the name of Serbian nationalism. But whether Mr. Kostunica will prosecute or hand over to The Hague for trial those, like former President Slobodan Milosevic, who have been indicted on war crimes charges is still an open question.
Many experts say it is a compromise that Kostunica must make with the West in order to gain the aid needed to rebuild this country - sinking under a decade of international sanctions.
Access to money
"A Hague tribunal office in Belgrade would meet the American standard of compliance, at least for now," and would allow Yugoslavia access to international financial institutions, says a senior Western diplomat.
Diplomats say Yugoslavia is still far too unstable to seriously press the issue of war crimes. Their immediate priority is to stabilize Kostunica's still-shaky position and to prevent the political revival of Mr. Milosevic, who resides in Belgrade and remains a potent political force.
Part of a US foreign aid bill currently in Congress demands evidence of compliance with the tribunal in order for Yugoslavia to gain access to international financial institutions, but the standards for compliance are low, experts say, and European governments are making no demands at all.
Moreover, the European Union is rushing in with emergency aid to keep social peace over winter as prices skyrocket due to price liberalization.
"Europeans have made it clear they intend to make Yugoslavia full partners in international financial institutions with no conditions," says Nina Bang-Jensen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based advocacy organization for The Hague tribunal. "I see the short-term appeal, but it's a disaster in the long run."
Critics say the international community is giving Kostunica a free ride on cooperating with the tribunal, and that Western diplomacy appears to be moving toward a compromise position that threatens to undermine the international court.
"Anything short of extradition compromises the legitimacy of the court," says Ms. Bang-Jensen.
The tribunal was established in 1993 by a UN charter to prosecute war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Belgrade first opened a tribunal office as part of the 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended the war in Bosnia. But the office was closed in early 1999 when Yugoslav authorities denied tribunal officials access to Kosovo.
Kostunica's stated position on war crimes is that the UN chartered war crimes tribunal is a puppet of American foreign policy, and he has vowed not to extradite indicted war criminals.
But he recently indicated to senior Western diplomats that he has "no objection" to the tribunal re-opening a Belgrade office to gather evidence on suspected war criminals.
Abiding by Dayton
"Mr. Kostunica has said he intends to fully abide by the Dayton accords, and that includes re-opening the tribunal office in Belgrade," says British diplomat Robert Gordon, who was present at a meeting with Kostunica along with another senior British diplomat when the issue was discussed. "A new federal government should be in place in two weeks, and we can expect movement after that."
Critics say the international community is giving away too much for too little, and that a double-standard is being used for Croatia and Serbia.
"This is precisely the time when a clear message must be sent to the Yugoslav leadership," says Bang-Jensen. "The same standard that was applied to Croatia must be applied to Serbia; a demand for the surrender and transfer of war criminals. All member states are supposed to abide by this, and there is no reason why there should be an exception here."
Critics say more rigorous demands were made of Croatia.
"In the fall of 1997, Croatia surrendered 10 indictees to The Hague, in part because the US signaled it took the tribunal seriously, while the new government led by President Stipe Mesic arrested a number of generals. Croatia took tremendous political risks, while Serbia is being welcomed with open arms," says Bang-Jensen.
"It's uncomfortable to have to deal with justice. It's being regarded as inconvenient to creating a functional bilateral relationship with Yugoslavia," says Jim Hooper, director of Balkan policy at the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization that specializes in crisis prevention.
Of several options for possible trials, the most controversial scenario is that Milosevic be tried in Belgrade on mere corruption charges.
A locally held Milosevic trial would not necessarily receive the international community's official stamp of approval, but it may be enough to satisfy Western governments.
"Even a corruption trial for Milosevic would be accepted by the international community. They might not accept it officially, but would wink at it, so long as long as Milosevic is not free and causing trouble," says the senior Western diplomat.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society