ANALYSIS: The European Difference

Europe and America both claim they want Belgrade to demonstrate full cooperation with The Hague. But the Europeans are taking a softer approach, with potentially softer results.

ANALYSIS: The European Difference

Europe and America both claim they want Belgrade to demonstrate full cooperation with The Hague. But the Europeans are taking a softer approach, with potentially softer results.

Why did recent visits to Washington and Paris by the two main players in Serbia's "October revolution" have such different effects? Does it say more about the visitors, or their hosts?


Since coming to power last October, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has persistently placed the question of the war crimes tribunal at the bottom of his list of priorities, repeatedly pointing out with open scorn that his new government has "many more important things" to deal with.


Then last week, returning from his first visit to Washington, Kostunica acknowledged to his countrymen that the tribunal has become "virtually the only serious obstacle facing Yugoslavia when it comes to cooperation with the international community". Although the president did not say so explicitly, his comments were understood to mean that removing this obstacle was now a priority for Belgrade. Suddenly, the tribunal jumped from the bottom of Kostunica's list of priorities to the very top.


It seems his meetings with President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other US officials had a sobering effect on Kostunica. Only two days after the visit, for example, in an interview with the German weekly Focus, Kostunica announced his intention to ensure that the government presents parliament with the legislation on Yugoslav cooperation with the tribunal before the end of the month.


Yugoslav justice minister Momcilo Grubac confirmed the timetable, and acknowledged that the law will regulate "every form of cooperation with the Hague court . . . including the extradition of war crimes suspects".


By coincidence, the end of May also marked the cut off date for the US administration to decide whether it will participate in the donors' conference at which more than $1 billion in economic aid could be allocated to Yugoslavia.


Less sobering was Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic's trip to Paris. The week before Kostunica's journey, Djindjic met President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and other French officials. Towards the end of the visit, Djindjic told the French daily Le Monde that former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic could only be tried in Belgrade - and not just for fraud and abuse of power but for war crimes, too. Djindjic said Milosevic might be sent to The Hague "in one or two years", but only if it became apparent that Belgrade could not offer the former president a fair trial on war crimes charges.


The different signals from the two Belgrade leaders is particularly notable since their positions appear to have reversed: the president has been generally considered the one fundamentally opposed to the tribunal while the prime minister has been seen as more pragmatic. So what happened? The only logical explanation is the different positions put forward by the French and US administrations on Belgrade's cooperation with the tribunal.


Washington was blunt. According to State Department and White House spokespersons, Kostunica was told that "US ability to assist Yugoslavia depends on Belgrade's relations with the tribunal". Unsatisfied by progress so far, Washington, according to the same sources, has "put a hold on additional aid and US support for a donor's conference."


Secretary Powell told Kostunica he "is looking forward to seeing what else Yugoslavia will be doing in the weeks ahead" to allow the US "to make a judgement with respect to releasing that condition".


According to White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman, Bush "stated clearly [to Kostunica] that Milosevic must face justice for his international crimes". The right place to face justice for "international crimes", it is understood, is the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.


Paris was less enthusiastic about revealing details of Djindjic's meetings with French officials. The Serbian prime minister said "the economy was mentioned 50 times, Milosevic only twice" and "not in the context of his extradition to The Hague".


Tribunal Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who visited Paris the day after Djindjic, was told by French officials they had "insisted" on cooperation with the tribunal. But further economic aid to Serbia and business relations would not be "preconditioned" on Belgrade's level of cooperation, she was told. The French explained that in their view such "preconditioning" could make Serbs feel "victimised", "isolated" and subject to a "global anti-Serbian conspiracy". This in turn could push Serbia back into its pre-October autistic state.


The French reasoning mirrors Belgrade's own excuses for ignoring the tribunal's demands and failing to cooperate in accordance with the UN statute.


The contrasting effects of Washington and Paris on Kostunica and Djindjic rests on the difference between the terms "preconditioning" and "insisting". In Serbia, as elsewhere in the Balkans, "preconditions" have achieved more dramatic results than mere "insistence".


Nevertheless, the Europeans are not prepared to join the US in "preconditioning" participation in the donors' conference on significant improvements in Belgrade's cooperation with The Hague. The difference, according to European diplomatic circles, lies in "style not essence". They also point out that Washington, despite its "tough line approach" has avoided spelling out specific benchmarks by which to appraise Belgrade. They are calling for "concrete steps", but not specifying them so as to avoid tying their hands.


Despite being the first to spell out a "policy of conditionally" for the states of former Yugoslavia, the EU countries think better results can be won from Belgrade by "insisting". They claim their aim is the same as Washington's - full cooperation with the tribunal and the transfer of Milosevic and other war crimes suspects to The Hague. They say they are "working as persistently BUT much more discreetly than the Americans".


They also add a pedagogic, even "idealist", aim, arguing - according to a senior European official not from Paris - that it is essential that changed attitudes towards the tribunal in Serbia come "not only as a result of external pressure, but also from a genuine and increased awareness of the Serbian public regarding the legitimacy of the ICTY and its importance for lasting peace and reconciliation in the Balkans".


How the Serbian public is to reach this "genuine awareness" is not explained, especially when the new government publicly promotes the same prejudices and misconceptions towards The Hague as the former regime. Prior to his sobering visit to Washington, Kostunica was at the forefront in pushing these old attitudes, accusing the tribunal of "anti-Serbian bias", being an "instrument of American policy", failing to investigate "NATO and Kosovo Albanian crimes", and so on.


Meantime, in a subsequent letter to his European counterparts, Powell has called for a postponement of the donors' conference. Eager to have the Americans on board, EU foreign affairs ministers decided May 14 to put the meeting off until June 29.


No conditions have been laid down. Senior diplomatic sources in Brussels told Tribunal Update the delay is intended to give "more time to Belgrade to solve its problems with The Hague". But these sources also insist that the conference will go ahead "with or without Americans" - even if those "problems" are not solved by the end of June.


Perhaps the Europeans' gentler approach could in the long-term deliver better and more genuine results than the Americans' hard-line stance. Yet the tribunal does not have endless time. Postponing Milosevic's transfer to The Hague will make previous and on-going trials of second and third fiddles from the bloody Balkan orchestra 1991-99 quite pointless. Indeed, while the tribunal could endure the non-cooperation of the Milosevic regime, which cooperated with no one, there is grave concern that it simply cannot survive sustained non-cooperation from new democratic authorities in Belgrade enjoying western support.


Non-cooperation may also contribute to a renewal of fascist tendencies. The recent anti-Bosniak (Muslim) outbursts in Banja Luka and Trebinje, in the Serb entity in Bosnia, may be a direct result of the failure of NATO, I-For and S-For to arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and dispatch him to The Hague. Is Europe so confident that allowing Milosevic to linger at home will not cause similar such outbursts to occur in Serbia?


Support our journalists