Comment: A Watershed In Balkan Policy

The indictment of Milosevic and other top Belgrade officials is not just about Kosovo. It should put all future tyrants on notice.

Comment: A Watershed In Balkan Policy

The indictment of Milosevic and other top Belgrade officials is not just about Kosovo. It should put all future tyrants on notice.

Thursday, 10 November, 2005

The indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and four senior associates is a watershed in the international approach to the Yugoslav wars.


It could represent a long-term commitment to identifying and prosecuting those responsible for Europe's worst violence since the Second World War.


But the move will only prove effective if this is the beginning of a process and not its culmination. Coming as it does in the middle of attempts to negotiate an end to the Kosovo crisis, its timing is something of a surprise--but better now than later. It is just a shame that the indictment was not issued earlier.


The West might have chosen to isolate and abandon Milosevic during Belgrade's 1996-97 pro-democracy demonstrations, which could have helped to erode his position at a crucial moment. Unfortunately, the international community still viewed Milosevic as a strategic partner and factor for stability, as a result of his role in brokering the Dayton Peace Accord, the agreement which ended the war in Bosnia.


Sufficient evidence to indict Milosevic has in fact been in the public domain for some time. But, according to one argument, with Kosovo, the evidence had become so overwhelming, thanks to saturation television coverage and a series of human rights reports, that the Tribunal could not ignore it without calling into question its own credibility.


Recent pledges of support given by several governments--especially that of the UK--to collate and forward all information including sensitive material of relevance to war crimes investigators signalled a reversal of the international foot-dragging which had so hampered the work of the Tribunal over Bosnia.


The fact that NATO has indicated in public statements that it no longer views Milosevic as the only interlocutor may also have made it easier for Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour to decide to issue the indictment.


While the Tribunal has long insisted that it does not accept political direction, it probably could not remain oblivious to the political environment and alienate its major financial and political supporters, which might have been the result of an earlier indictment.


But will the indictment undercut diplomatic efforts to end the war in Kosovo? Will it not just make Milosevic dig in his heels and convince him he has nothing to lose by holding out further?


Dealing with an indicted war criminal will certainly complicate future negotiations, but this should not represent an insurmountable obstacle to achieving NATO's goals in Kosovo.


Though never indicted under international law, the international community has, after all, dealt with such figures as Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein in the past. It should be able to decouple the Tribunal's legitimate legal pursuit from the process of ending the war.


The key factor in determining when Milosevic or his successors will be prepared to withdraw from Kosovo and agree to a robust NATO peace-keeping presence was always going to be when Yugoslav Army's presence became untenable--either as a result of the air or ground campaign--and not whether or not the Yugoslav president has been charged with war crimes.


Nevertheless, human rights' activists must wonder whether the indictment will remain largely symbolic or whether one day Milosevic and his co-defendants will be put on trial. The track record for arrests of major leaders in Bosnia has of course not been encouraging and barring a highly unlikely occupation of Serbia itself, even more remote in the case of Milosevic.


Even so, the tangible benefits of this indictment could be significant. In contrast to the laid-back reaction of the notorious paramilitary leader Zeljko ("Arkan") Raznjatovic to his own indictment, the Milosevic government seems to take this more seriously.


The day the indictment was announced, the pro-regime station BK TV responded by calling for the indictment of NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, US President Bill Clinton, and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. It went on to attack what it considered were the Tribunal's attempts to criminalise the victims of the war, ie, the Serbs.


The indictment and the implicit ban on travel will obviously make it difficult for Milosevic and his lieutenants to enjoy the ill-gotten gains which they have stashed abroad. Much more important, the indictment may help deter others in Yugoslavia's political and security system from committing war crimes in the future.


Crucially, the indictments may also help detach some senior members of the regime who do not want to share Milosevic's fate. The recent flight abroad by Milorad Vucelic, former vice-president of Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party, and a director of the state-owned communications giant Telekom, may thus be a harbinger of things to come.


Over the longer term, there could potentially be a second-order effect for Serbia's political future. By making it clear that the ultra-nationalist ideology championed by Milosevic has now been judged to be outside the international community's legal and moral parameters, this will make similar policy options much less attractive for his successors.


While this process will force ordinary Serbs to confront the recent past, it will also hopefully demonstrate that the issue is one of individual as opposed to collective guilt.


However, the indictment also makes it clear that, as long as Milosevic is in power, Serbia will remain an international pariah and find it hard to obtain aid to rebuild its shattered economy. Combined with the high cost Serbia has paid for the war, this process may make it easier for moderate alternatives to emerge in Serbia--provided, of course, that Milosevic's policy can be shown unambiguously to have failed in Kosovo.


The indictment should also be viewed as a work in progress, as it does not address Milosevic's responsibility for war crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia prior to the war in Kosovo. To ignore this would equate to a failure to provide closure to an episode of crimes as horrendous as those committed in Kosovo and miss a chance to discredit the ideology and policies which, in many ways, extend beyond Milosevic and his immediate circle.


Ultimately, the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic and his acolytes should be only the beginning of a long road, leading eventually to a new Serbia as a partner in a more secure and stable region and continent.


Norman Cigar is the co-author of A Prima Facie Case for the Indictment of Slobodan Milosevic (1996).


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