So, Slobodan Milosevic has been arrested. On April 1, Serbia's 11-year strongman finally surrendered to Yugoslavia's newly democratic government, which accuses him of offenses against their country's domestic law.
What should come next - for Mr. Milosevic, and more important, for the 20-plus million people of all the troubled lands that were once part of the Yugoslav federation?
Many in the West are excited at the prospect that, with Milosevic detained, the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague might now be able to try him. On April 6, the court's registrar handed the Yugoslav justice minister a demand for Milosevic's extradition.
Until now, however, many leaders and people in Yugoslavia's heartland republic, Serbia, still challenge the right of the international tribunal to try Milosevic. Some see the tribunal as unduly influenced by the US and its NATO allies, who just two years ago were inflicting terrible casualties on Serbian civilians, as well as soldiers, during the Kosovo-related bombings of 1999. Some, including Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, see the war-crimes court as fatally biased against ethnic Serbs. And some Serbs, no doubt, just prefer to continue viewing members of their own ethnic group as the main victims of all of history's wrongs, rather than looking at the damage that Serbian individuals, including Milosevic, have inflicted on non-Serbs.
Other factors may also block Milosevic's speedy extradition to The Hague. The question of which level of government in Belgrade has the power to extradite him might soon become unclear. Montenegro, Serbia's junior partner in the present Yugoslav federation, is going to the polls April 22, and may vote to secede. How could new constitutional arrangements, including those affecting extradition, be worked out? All of that could take time to resolve.
Meanwhile, the same NATO powers that bombed Belgrade in 1999 now increasingly need Belgrade's support to help stabilize the strife-torn Presevo, Kosovo, and Macedonia. So even though Western leaders strenuously deny that they seek to influence the war-crimes court's work, they might now be quite happy if the court chose not to rock the diplomatic boat in the Balkans. Already, the British have indicated they don't want to press too hard for Milosevic's extradition, if that might weaken Mr. Kostunica's hold on power.
And fears of a possible pro-Milosevic backlash in Serbia may not be overdrawn. The pro-Milosevic demonstration in Belgrade on April 7 attracted only about 3,000 people - compared with the hundreds of thousands who demonstrated for Kostunica last October. But Kostunica has been in power for less than six months. He has had little time to rid the government bureaucracy of former Milosevic supporters, many of whom remain in the administration, including the security services. They could cause real trouble if they judge that their new boss is treating his predecessor unfairly.
For now, that factor seems to be pushing Kostunica against sending Milosevic to The Hague. In time, however, it may start to push the other way. In a situation of political uncertainty - and with even his own ruling coalition still unstable - Kostunica yet may come to judge it too risky for him to continue to be the one trying and punishing Milosevic. Handing him over to outsiders to deal with could well, at that point, come to seem like a smarter option.
In a real sense, though, the history of former Yugoslavia has been moving so fast that the question of Slobodan Milosevic's future has become yesterday's news. What happens to the diminished former bully-boy now seems far less important than how and when the present, risk-fraught circumstances in the former Yugoslavia can be guided to a stable outcome. That task calls for tremendous diplomatic skill, as well as a real commitment of resources by all who hope to see Serbia's fledgling democracy thrive and prosper.
Serbia, with its 10.5 million people, remains the biggest power in the whole region. The Serbian democrats won a wonderful victory when, through democratic means, they ousted Milosevic from power. Now, their most important task is to strengthen their country's culture of democracy and tolerance, as they set about rebuilding from a decade of war damage.
How best can we help them do that? What combination of truth commissions, war-crimes courts, people-to-people diplomacy, investment for regionwide rebuilding, and other mechanisms can help Serbians and their neighbors get where they now need to go?
Since the war-crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia started its work in 1993, many have hoped it could pick up where the post-World War II Nuremberg trials left off, in building an international culture where perpetrators of atrocities could be held accountable for their acts. That culture is still far away. In the meantime, though, it is worth asking how well the whole Nuremberg project of reforming Germany might have worked if it had not been followed by the huge investment in rebuilding undertaken under the Marshall Plan.
Judging or healing: In the aftermath of atrocity, which is more important? I would say healing. Let's do what we can, and invest what we must, to help all the peoples of former Yugoslavia heal.
The Bush administration's April 2 decision to free up $50 million in direct aid to Belgrade, and five times that in support from the International Monetary Fund, was wise. But Washington should do much more. Secretary of State Powell would do well to follow the playbook written by an earlier American general-turned-statesman who well understood the value of investing in regional stabilization: Gen. George C. Marshall, author of the Marshall Plan. I wonder what we might call Secretary Powell's plan?
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor