Snub may be costly for Yugoslavia's new president

Kostunica's refusal to meet UN prosecutor Jan. 23 puts US aid at risk.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's appointment book has become something of a test for the fledgling leader's democratic credentials and his readiness to cooperate with the United Nation's War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague.

And critics at home and abroad say he may be failing that test, with millions of dollars in US financial aid at stake.

Today, Mr. Kostunica makes a groundbreaking visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, the first by a Yugoslav leader since the 1992-1995 war. In an interview with the Bosnian Serb newspaper Nezavisne Novine, Kostunica was asked about the handover of Bosnian Serbs wanted for war crimes, including former political leader Radovan Karadzic and military leader Ratko Mladic.

"If we assume that in Yugoslavia there are people who are indicted and they are citizens of some other country, they could seek refuge in this country. This country could give them asylum," Kostunica said, adding that he had other priorities.

On Tuesday, Kostunica indicated he would be "too busy" to see the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, when she arrives in Belgrade Jan. 23.

In a move criticized by members of his own coalition, Kostunica found time Saturday for a meeting with his predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic. Local media reported that Mr. Milosevic, indicted in 1999 for the mistreatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, wanted an assurance he would not be extradited.

"Having found time to consult with Slobodan Milosevic but not meet with Ms. Del Ponte, he won't impress the world that he is making a clean break with the past," says Nina Bang-Jansen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice, a support group for The Hague tribunal.

Signaling such a break is important ahead of a March 31 deadline, when the US Congress will decide whether Belgrade qualifies for a $100 million financial aid package.

Congress has said Belgrade must take concrete steps toward cooperating with the tribunal. A key demand of what's known as the Lautenburg law, is that the Yugoslav government must "surrender and transfer" war crimes indictees or offer "assistance in their apprehension."

If Belgrade fails, American representatives at world financial institutions would be directed to vote and lobby against Yugoslavia.

The stakes are high as the poverty-stricken country seeks to restructure its debt to the World Bank and obtain low interest loans.

"I don't believe there will be a problem with The Hague over the long term, although the present situation is tense," says Dusan Batakovic, an adviser to Kostunica on policy issues. "Both sides agree there must be a Milosevic trial, but they can't agree on where and how. A compromise is possible."

Del Ponte's visit highlights a conflict within the Yugoslav leadership. A small liberal wing would send Milosevic off to The Hague immediately. A majority prefer a trial in Belgrade, first on corruption charges, then for war crimes under the auspices of the court in The Hague. Del Ponte has indicated such a solution is not acceptable.

For years Kostunica, a moderate Serb nationalist, has denounced the UN court as biased and politicized. His view is emerging as a key hindrance that could derail Yugoslavia's reintegration into world financial institutions.

But European governments and the US State Department are also keenly aware of Yugoslavia's importance to establishing regional stability. So far, they have been more patient in demanding action against war criminals.

"There is a serious situation with armed bands of ethnic Albanians on Serbia's southern border, and Montenegro is still toying with separation. These issues must be weighed against chasing war criminals," says a senior Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Further complicating matters is the change in US administrations. "Kostunica may be biding his time to look for signs of a change in direction in the incoming Bush administration," says a member of Kostunica's coalition, who declined to be identified.

Those familiar with the UN court say Kostunica is mistaken if he thinks he will get a free ride. "We mustn't forget that the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia was a creation of the former Bush administration," says Bang-Jansen. "International enthusiasm for the new democratic government won't last forever. At a certain point, everyone's patience will be tried."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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