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PROFILE: Milutinovic in Limbo

Serbian president Milan Milutinovic has been left in limbo as others decide his fate.
By Jasmina Spasic

Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic has proclaimed Serbia's readiness to extradite war crimes suspects to The Hague. But not Milan Milutinovic. Djindjic contends that the republic's president - whose mandate expires in year's time - is immune to prosecution. The tribunal insists, however, that no one is entitled to immunity under its statute.

Sources close to the premier have suggested Milutinovic might be willing to go to The Hague voluntarily, if he was guaranteed the same lenient treatment granted to the former Bosnian Serb president, Biljana Plavsic.

The Belgrade media over the past year has repeatedly speculated about Milutinovic's contacts with tribunal representatives. Rumours have circulated of an offer that would see Milutinovic testifying against the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic in exchange for a pardon. However, Florence Hartmann, spokesperson for the tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has denied such claims, and Milutinovic himself has never publicly suggested he might surrender to The Hague, with or without guarantees. As things stand, he is under the same indictment as Milosevic and they would be jointly tried.

After Del Ponte's latest visit to Belgrade in the first week of September, Djindjic declared that the Serbian judiciary might start conducting local war crimes cases, implying that Milutinovic might at least appear before the courts in Serbia.

The impression is that the indictment against Milutinovic is weaker than those lodged against Milosevic and his other close associates, his former foreign minister Nikola Sainovic, the former boss of the police, Vlajko Stojiljkovic and the former army chief Dragoljub Ojdanic.

Unlike them, Milutinovic had no direct responsibility for any key operations. As the president of Serbia, he automatically held a seat on the Supreme Defence Council, which commanded Serbian forces during the 1999 war in Kosovo. But unlike Ojdanic and Stojiljkovic, he was not in a leadership position, and unlike Sainovic, he did not act as Milosevic's direct envoy.

A brief survey of the offices he held highlights his potential usefulness as a witness and many analysts compare his situation to that of Plavsic who - like him - belonged to a collective body that ran a war, but was not prominent within it. Like her, he has demonstrated "good behaviour" and a willingness to cooperate, which in the event of testifying could result in a minimal sentence.

While the rumours multiply, Milutinovic goes about his daily business of his official function. But his position is unenviable and bizarre; he is incapable of exercising his powers, as his only supporters are the parties of the former regime, who hold only a third of the seats in parliament.

Any attempt to exercise real power would only cause a clash with the leaders of the ruling coalition, prompting accusations that he was attempting to restore the authoritarian communist regime. After Del Ponte's visit to Belgrade, the tabloid paper Panorama suggested a deal might already have been hatched between prime minister Djindjic and Milutinovic. The jist of it was, "Don't exercise your powers, and we shall protect you from The Hague."

So Milutinovic is a president without executive power and with little control over his fate. He appears to have abandoned his old politics and has hinted that the future of Serbia lies with the current leadership.

He is reputed to have become something of a recluse, slowly being isolated by his government, his party, and his fellow party members. Stories circulate that he has lost twenty kilograms due to anxiety and spends his time playing computer games. He rarely appears in public and his occasional interviews disclose little.

Even his party comrades from Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, now rarely mention him. In mid-July, the SPS Secretary General, Zoran Andjelkovic, hinted that the party would distance itself from its vice-president, when he publicised his unhappiness with the way Milutinovic was carrying out his duties. "It is well known among the party membership that I regularly communicate with Milutinovic," he said. "I wish that communication had resulted in the Serbian president exercising more of his powers. Unfortunately, the pressures and accusations of war crimes are affecting him." Andjlekovic suggested he might even be expelled from the party.

Milutinovic's current duties in the SPS are only those of an ordinary member. The once all-powerful party is divided between "hawks", totally dedicated to the preservation of Milosevic's status and deeds, and "doves", who - while not entirely prepared to denounce Milosevic - believe his role has been consigned to history. Milutinovic, who was once Milosevic's close personal friend, now belongs to the latter.

Milutinovic did not become a dove overnight, however. In the weeks after Milosevic's fall, he was the main liaison officer with the leaders of the new ruling coalition. His task was evidently frustrating, for in the columns of the weekly Blicnews, he was later to accuse his old comrades of looking after their own affairs while he was negotiating with Djindjic, the new DOS coalition and the new Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica.

Last November, Blicnews published minutes of a closed session Milutinovic held with the SPS leaders. "Look at these eighteen people [the DOS leaders], they are united and I believe will remain united for longer than you think," he said. "They will not break up soon. They have the same goal, and this goal is not only to remain in power but to remake the entire Balkans. I don't know if anyone understands that lives are at stake - the lives of all of us."

Two things may have contributed to Milutinovic's change of attitude towards the new regime. One is that he spent six years out of the country as Yugoslav ambassador to Greece. The other is that he is reported to have felt deeply dissatisfied with the role of foreign minister that Milosevic gave him after his return from Athens, as he had planned to become ambassador to the United Kingdom. His son had already started school in England, and the Milutinovics had even bought a house in London.

The rupture with Milosevic must have been painful, as the friendship between the two men dates back to both of their student days. Milutinovic owed his political career to Milosevic and was seen as his puppet in the role of Serbian president.

It was Milosevic who him put him up as a candidate for president in 1997. He briefly distinguished himself in his new role at the failed peace talks over Kosovo, held in Rambouillet, France, in February 1999, when he demonstrated his command of English and French in an unexpected display of verbosity.

Before that, Milutinovic's only notoriety was as a hard line communist (with a pedigree, as his father was a well-known revolutionary and one of the founders of the French Communist Party), who had played a decisive role in the 1970s, in the expulsion of several Belgrade university professors who'd been accused of politically unreliability.

In the mid-1990s, he is rumoured to have become involved in operations to export hard currency to secret accounts abroad. An anti-corruption commission established by the Serbian government is still investigating the matter and no criminal charges have been brought. The authorities have, however, accused him of illegally issuing a diplomatic passport to Milosevic's son, Marko. An official inquiry into the issue is under way.

Milutinovic, meanwhile, has no alternative but to wait as others decide his fate.

Jasmina Spasic is a journalist with the Belgrade daily Danas.

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