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Defiant Serbia Running Out of Time

Belgrade policy of non-cooperation with Hague may lead to economic ruin and undermine state union with Montenegro.
By Zelimir Bojovic

Serbia’s continued non-cooperation with the Hague war crimes court could lead to dire economic and political isolation if progress is not made very soon, analysts warn.


The recent appearance in Belgrade of Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte and two top-ranking American diplomats has led to speculation that the gloves have come off the international community’s approach to the issue – and that harsh economic punishments may follow.


Some of Serbia and Montenegro’s own top officials have admitted that its continued refusal to arrest even one of the 20 indicted war crimes suspects believed to be spending time in Serb territory could have serious consequences.


“Time’s up for Serbia,” Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said this week, adding that there was “not a single minute to waste on delays and political calculations” about the government’s policy on the tribunal.


The pressure on the Belgrade government had been mounting steadily after rumours began to spread that October 1 was an unofficial deadline for the delivery of the most-wanted fugitive indictee Ratko Mladic to the Hague. Reports of a new police hunt for the former Bosnian Serb general near the south-western town of Valjevo were later dismissed as “a publicity stunt” designed to take attention away from the Serb capital.


However, there are signs that a breakthrough in cooperation may still happen. On September 30, Belgrade District Court called four of the fugitive indictees - high-ranking police and army generals accused of crimes committed against Kosovo Albanians during the 1999 NATO bombardment - to come and pick up their Hague tribunal indictments.


Surprisingly enough, one of them actually showed up. Police General Sreten Lukic was handed the indictment in the presence of his lawyer. At the time of going to press, it was not yet clear why the authorities had not apprehended him at that time.


The stance of the Belgrade government, which is headed by staunch Hague tribunal opponent Vojislav Kostunica, has already halted negotiations on the country’s European Union integration and its possible membership of the NATO Partnership for Peace programme.


Some Belgrade economists warn that non-cooperation may eventually result in the suspension of 80 million US dollars of American financial assistance planned for 2005, and block its relations with international organisations – all of which could result in a wave of inflation that might seriously cripple the country’s struggling economy.


On top of that, Montenegro, has already warned it would “reconsider” the state union should Belgrade fail to cooperate with the tribunal.


The Serbia and Montenegro Council of Ministers is expected to discuss concrete strategies and policy towards the tribunal next week.


Rasim Ljajic, chairman of the Federal Council for Cooperation with The Hague, believes that this meeting will be of crucial importance for future relations with the court. "This is definitely one of the most serious political moments in time that the country has yet found itself in,” he said.


The council has already been rocked by the September 22 resignation of its three Montenegrin members, who quit in protest over Serbia’s lack of progress in its dealings with the tribunal - a move that angered Belgrade, who dismissed it as “politicking”.


Predrag Boskovic, a Montenegrin representative on the council and the state union’s deputy foreign minister, told IWPR that he and his Montenegrin colleagues were “revolted” by the Serbian authorities’ lack of readiness to arrest suspects and hand them over to tribunal.


The council is Belgrade’s only visible contact with the Hague court, but it has limited powers.


“Delivery to The Hague is what many expect from us, but that’s not within our jurisdiction,” said Ljajic, adding that the police were responsible for carrying out any arrests.


Some observers are highly dismissive of the council’s work. James Lyon, director of the International Crisis Group in Belgrade, described the body as a “smoke screen” designed to deceive the international community by only pretending to carry out certain activities.


“The international community ran out of patience six months ago and now Serbia will face unpleasant political and economic consequences,” he warned.


Milan Pajevic of G17 Plus party, a member of the ruling coalition, told IWPR that the loss of next year’s 80 million dollar US loan might be one such consequence.


If this money was to be lost, many economists warn that it could have dire consequences for the country. “If America and the EU decide to suspend their financial assistance to Serbia, the public finances sector will suffer a heavy blow and therefore Serbian citizens will as well,” economic analyst Miroslav Prokopijevic told IWPR.


He emphasised that, if that was to happen, the value of the local currency – the dinar - could drop by as much as half, while public finances would lose several hundred million dollars of support and hard currency reserves would start to melt away.


An additional problem for Serbia is the fact that it cannot enter the commercial market before it signs an agreement with the London Club of Creditors and until the standby agreement with the International Monetary Fund, IMF, is completed next May, he said.


“If these institutions stop supporting Serbia, it would mean that the country would no longer be able to take out loans. And that would be a strong blow to its financial system,” said Prokopijevic.


But the political consequences could be as dangerous as the economic ones – as Montenegro seems increasingly ready to use the lack of cooperation as an argument for revising its ties with Serbia and maybe even dissolving the federation.


“If no progress is made in cooperating with the Hague tribunal within the next 15 days, Montenegro will ask for relations with Serbia to be re-defined,” Boskovic told IWPR.


A weak and isolated Serbia, observers warn, could jeopardise stability in the whole region. Politicians and analysts also predict that continued non-cooperation would also weaken Belgrade’s position in the fragile negotiations about the final status of Kosovo, which is now a UN protectorate.


“By refusing to extradite suspects to the tribunal, Serbia is once again becoming a criminal society that is not a part of the [Euro-Atlantic] integration processes,” warned Jelena Milic, member of the European Movement in Serbia.


Zelimir Bojovic is a correspondent for the Deutsche Welle radio service in Serbia.


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