The clock is ticking for Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader indicted for war crimes by The Hague tribunal.
But it is likely to tick right on through a March 31 deadline set by the US Congress. At stake is the second half of a sorely needed $100 million aid package - and US support for further loans from all Western donors.
To keep the funds flowing, President Bush must certify that Yugoslavia is cooperating with The Hague tribunal, complying with Bosnia's Dayton peace accord, and protecting minority rights. There are reports the Bush administration is prepared to give its qualified approval, to show support for the fledgling government of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica.
As pressure continues from abroad, however, Yugoslav leaders are facing a fresh tide of discontent at home that complicates the issue detaining and prosecuting Mr. Milosevic.
Analysts say that significant strides are now being made, including the first-time extradition a week ago from Yugoslavia of a Bosnian Serb, Milomar Stakic, indicted on genocide charges. In addition, eight Milosevic cronies were arrested in the past week, a move that may help build a case against the former leader.
Nearly six months after being ousted from power in a popular rebellion Oct. 5, Milosevic still lives, heavily protected, at his lavish presidential compound in Belgrade.
"If the US doesn't certify [Yugoslav cooperation], everyone is going to lose on this," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade. "But there would not be this progress in the last month if [the US] didn't focus their attention on it. The deadline has forced it to the front burner."
Washington has made clear that sending Milosevic to The Hague, or at least arresting him to first face trial at home - moves that polls show more and more people here accept as inevitable - will be a critical step.
President Kostunica, who has often criticized the tribunal as a tool of Western policy, insists on a legal path, and says that measures are under way. But a string of problems - from the teetering economy, clashes with ethnic-Albanian militants in southern Serbia, and the likely vote by junior republic Montenegro later this year to break away from the Yugoslav federation - threatens to bring strikers back onto the streets and undermine Kostunica's popular mandate.
Into this tense mix, Milosevic is a dangerous political wild card. He still leads his leftist party, and his political machine - taking surprisingly swift advantage of the new grievances - brought several thousand supporters onto the streets in protest last weekend.
"Milosevic has fallen out of Serb hearts, but with him still hanging around, and with all the other problems, people say: 'What has changed? What was this [revolution] all about?' " says Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst and editor of the VIP News Service.
"Things are worse, and these leaders, these amateurs, don't do anything to give hope to the people," says Mr. Grubacic. He notes that the issue would have disappeared if Milosevic had been picked up on the day he was overthrown. "Ordinary Serbs don't mind if [Milosevic] goes to The Hague, but now it will mess up the political game."
The damage may already be done, as Yugoslavia's ambitions to lean Westward are curtailed by unfinished business.
"People realize now that they are still hostages of Milosevic, even though he is practically under house arrest," says Vojin Dimitrijevic, head of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights. "They are fully aware that if there is no cooperation [with the tribunal], there will be no support. Days are being lost."
That is the view of tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who said on Wednesday in Bosnia that Belgrade's cooperation was "going pretty well now." She added: "I am not prepared to accept political excuses anymore for any lack of cooperation."
The Otpor student movement, which helped mobilize the popular uprising against Milosevic, is also impatient with the new government. In the past two weeks, it has begun a new campaign. Stark black-and-white posters plastered across Belgrade portray Milosevic behind bars, or lighting a cigar against a background photo of refugees fleeing the Croatian city of Vukovar, a wartime image that has never had such wide public exposure here.
The posters ask: Ko je kriv? "Who is guilty?"
The US deadline is contributing to a high-profile rift between Kostunica - who has vowed he will not bow to "pressures" - and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who asked in Washington for more time. '
Decisions here are complicated for political and military reasons. Army chief Nebojsa Pavkovic is a staunch Milosevic ally. Some also argue that if Milosevic is sent to The Hague, another indicted war criminal - the current president of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic - would have to be sent as well. And that would require new elections.
Still, there is broad support for cooperation with The Hague - just disputes about how best to do it. Kostunica, a declared nationalist, quietly met for the first time last Saturday with 17 potential members of a truth commission that would look into wartime crimes committed by Serbs. Though deemed an important step in the West, news of it hardly peeped out anywhere, leading one diplomatic observer to call it the "stealth truth commission, which totally misses the whole point."
"Our nationalists will certainly try to water this down, and have a debating society in which it is seen that all [ethnic groups] are guilty," says Mr. Dimitrijevic, who was asked to join the commission. "Those of us who insist on a catharsis, a cleansing of the past, are a minority. That is now changing," he says.
The truth commission could "begin a healing process," says Igor Pantelic, a Belgrade lawyer who defends Serb political cases before The Hague tribunal. He predicts Milosevic will be arrested, but tried in Belgrade before he is handed over. "It is absolutely necessary for people to see the outcome of his regime," Mr. Pantelic says. "People need some kind of closure. The nation is ashamed for all these years, and the catharsis of his trial would cure that state of mind."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor