Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Belgrade 'Edges' Towards Tribunal Co-operation

The Yugoslav authorities seem to be changing their previously hostile attitude towards the international war crimes tribunal
By Danica Vucenic

The new Yugoslav administration appears to have adopted a more conciliatory approach to the war crimes tribunal, but its unlikely to commit itself to cooperation with the international court before next month's general election.


President Vojislav Kostunica has long refused face-to-face talks with chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte and insisted that cooperation with the tribunal was not a priority.


But last week he granted del Ponte a visa to travel to Belgrade to reopen the tribunal's office in the capital and signaled that he might be prepared to assist the court. Addressing the European parliament last week, Kostunica said, "Anything that brings us closer to the truth is something one should support."


The international community has so far waited patiently for the new authorities to consolidate themselves. It has refrained from exerting serious pressure on Belgrade to extradite Hague indictees. But this may change after the Serbian elections on December 23.


The Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, is expected to trounce Milosevic's Socialist Party, SPS, and take control of the republican government.


At present, the division of power within the transitional coalition government - in which each ministerial post is shared by officials from the three ruling parties, the SPS, DOS and the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO - means agreement over a subject as controversial as the tribunal is well nigh impossible.


On November 17, the Beta news agency in Belgrade reported the SPS interior minister Slobodan Tomovic had called for all Hague indictees in Serbia to be afforded police protection, against possible kidnapping by bounty-hunters. "[They] must have security at least until the elections and until it is decided what will happen," Tomovic said. There has been no response as yet from Kostunica and DOS and SPO interior ministers.


DOS itself comprises 18 different parties, all with different agendas. Even after December 23, it is unlikely the new government will arrive at a uniform policy towards the international tribunal.


The new federal minister for national minorities, Rasim Ljajic, a Bosnian Muslim from the Sandzak, says The Hague court has yet to be mentioned at federal cabinet meetings. "I am not sure there exists a complete consensus in the federal government over the issue," he said.


But almost daily, federal officials say Yugoslavia has nothing against assisting the tribunal. Milan St. Protic, the new mayor of Belgrade and a DOS deputy in the federal parliament, said recently that cooperating with the court is an obligation for all United Nations member countries.


He was speaking at a meeting in Strasbourg at which Yugoslavia was seeking admission to the Council of Europe.


"I cannot see why we should avoid such cooperation," St. Protic said. "In any case we accept the tribunal opening an office."


But such an office does not guarantee government assistance, points out Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre renowned for its investigations into human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal operated an office in Belgrade from 1996 to March 1999, but was unsurprisingly unable to elicit any help from the Milosevic regime.


Kandic believes the new authorities are not making or attempting to make any progress on the crucial issue of police and army responsibility for war crimes.


But while the administration drags its heels, the media has begun albeit tentatively to debate the subject.


In a series entitled "Hate Speach", new-look state television recently acknowledged its war-mongering role in fanning hatred towards everything non-Serb during the Milosevic years. Independent radio B 92 also broadcasted a documentary about crimes committed in the Kosovo village of Cuska. Eyewitnesses related how Serbian forces had massacred several dozen Albanians in the village.


Opinion polls indicate the majority of people in Serbia believe the perpetrators of such crimes should be prosecuted. But consensus breaks down over the question of which crimes should figure and where these trials should take place.


Belgrade entrepreneur Nenad Stojadinovic argues the international community and the tribunal have exaggerated the extent of crimes committed by Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. "The crimes should be tried, but here in this country," he said. "The tribunal is a political instrument whose only goal is to exert a certain kind of pressure."


Pedrag Simic, a specialist in international politics and economics, points out that trials held in Serbia would have a much greater "sobering effect" on the Serbian public - they would be a lot harder to ignore or dismiss as foreign propaganda.


Chemical engineer Aleksandra Romcevic from Zrenjanin in Vojvodina, believes all criminals should be held accountable, especially Milosevic.


"I don't care whether they are tried here or in The Hague," she said. " What is important is that they are held responsible for acts they committed, rather than being left free to retire like anyone else."


Student Daria Rakocevic said she had not made up her mind about war crimes court. "The criminals should be held responsible, " she said. " But if the tribunal has been conceived as a means of blackening the name of Serbs, then that's not good."


Rakocevic echoes the sentiments of many when she says Milosevic should first answer for crimes against his own people, "then he can be extradited wherever you like together with the others."


But Ljajic believes the public is not yet ready to fully confront the crimes committed by Serbs against peoples of other nationalities in the Balkans.


"I do not expect this will happen soon or easily," Ljajic said. "I expect resistance from the public, exposed as it was to immense nationalist propaganda for ten years."


It seems many in Serbia are impatient for Milosevic and his cronies to appear in court. But whether they are prosecuted for crimes committed against the Serbian people, or against other nationalities remains a divisive issue.


Danica Vucenic is an IWPR contributor


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