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

Milosevic Arrest Key to Serbian Revival

Now that Milosevic is behind bars Belgrade leaders hope to be able to get on with the job of reviving their moribund country
By Tim Judah

What could have been more grotesque than Slobodan Milosevic's final hours of freedom?


First he makes outlandish demands and resorts to breast-beating slogans - "I'm not coming out alive". Then the shooting begins, followed by negotiations and finally, in vintage style, he throws in the towel, leaving the scene far worse off than he could have done if he had settled at the very beginning.


Sounds familiar? Of course it does, because Milosevic's last stand was a personal caricature of the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars. Only this time, the Serbs actually stand to benefit from his loss!


It is hardly surprising that the whole world's press has been present to witness the spectacle of Milosevic's last stand. But, such blanket coverage can have a slightly distorting effect on the bigger picture.


Sure, Milosevic was the boss, but he fell on 5 October last year. The man was already history. Still, the fact that he remained at liberty, and that there was increasing pressure on Serbia to turn him over to The Hague, meant that Serbia continued to remain his hostage.


At the end of February, Goran Svilanovic, Yugoslavia's young and reflective foreign minister came to London. In a moment of unusual candour for a politician, he admitted that the new authorities in Belgrade were actually "overwhelmed" by the problems that faced them - and one of the biggest problems was that foreigners kept harping on about Milosevic.


Of course, said Mr Svilanovic, Serbs wanted Milosevic brought to justice, but crucially they also wanted to "live better at the end of 2001".


This is the point. The success or failure of the events which began on 5 October last year lie not in whether Milosevic goes now, or later, to The Hague, but in whether ordinary people see an improvement in their standard of living.


If they don't, then Zarko Korac, the Serbian deputy premier, will have been proved right in his Cassandra-like prophecies of doom - that unless real economic reform, with some tangible benefits, begins to take hold, then the Serbia's rump hardcore nationalists will see a revival in their fortunes.


We don't need to look very far to find such examples of nationalist revival, fed by disappointment in change and the failure of economic reform. Russia and Romania are cases in point.


Svilanovic argued that the post-Milosevic governments of Serbia and Yugoslavia could not get down to dealing with their original agendas of economic, political and legal reform because, along with the Milosevic problem, they were burdened by the southern Serbia insurrection, Kosovo and of course the issue of Montenegro, which they had never anticipated.


With Milosevic now behind bars, hopefully Svilanovic, Korac and others who support the extradition of the former Yugoslav president to The Hague will be given a breathing space by the international community to fight their political battles and try to overhaul a moribund state and economy.


The indications are that Washington and London are now prepared to let Milosevic go on trial in Belgrade first before his eventual extradition. This is to be welcomed.


The reason it is to be welcomed is that with Milosevic behind bars a new political battle looms in Belgrade and so anyone outside the country who wants Milosevic to face international justice needs to be sensitive to the demands of those in Serbia who also want him dispatched there.


Essentially the order of battle runs as follows. On the one side we have Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president, who takes a principled stand that The Hague is a political court and an anti-Serb instrument. Lining up alongside him, but for perhaps less than principled reasons, are men such as Zoran Zizic, the Yugoslav premier, whose Montenegrin Socialist People's Party were, until October 5, loyal supporters of Milosevic.


A number of others now in government may also have their own reasons for feeling distinctly uncomfortable with the thought of extradition. They include Momcilo Perisic, Milosevic's former army chief and the man who commanded the first, Serbian, siege of Mostar in 1992.


On the other side is Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic who will do whatever is best for Serbia and himself, but not necessarily in that order.


His supporters are those who, with varying degrees of candour, will say that they "don't exclude" an extradition, which is code for "I agree with extradition, but for political reasons I can't admit it openly now." They include Svilanovic.


At the far end of the spectrum are those like Zarko Korac who will more or less openly admit that they'd like, personally, to handcuff Milosevic and shove him on board the first flight to Holland.


All the opinion polls show that those in favour of extradition are slowly but surely winning the argument. However, they need an amendment to the criminal code to allow for extradition and at this stage it remains unclear whether Zizic and his deputies will vote for it.


As for Kostunica himself, he is losing ground because the Serbian authorities are very much in the saddle now and he may, anyway, soon be unemployed.


On April 22, Montenegro goes to the polls. If it votes, as it may well do, for the pro-independence coalition, Yugoslavia will soon be dead and buried and therefore the federal leader will find himself without a country.


That is unless he suggests that Milan Milutinovic, the current Serbian president, and indicted war criminal, would like to resign from his post before his term expires and let him have a go at the job.


Whatever happens, it is clear that the arrest of Milosevic is part of a much wider process of modernisation and return to normality.


Let's hail what has happened in Serbia. It was a step in the right direction. But Serbia is nowhere near its goal: a dull little country in south-eastern Europe which exports grain; is adapting to the global economy with its relatively high proportion of well-educated people; whose borders are not lines drawn in blood but lines on a map as relevant to its people and its neighbours as those of Luxembourg, France or Germany.


Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia published by Yale University Press.