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REGIONAL REPORT: Public Prepared for Milosevic Extradition

Belgrade politicians work hard to garner public support for Milosevic's extradition to The Hague
By Marina Grihovic

"If Milosevic is the price of a better future, then I bid him farewell," Belgrade student Milan told IWPR. "He should be tried by Carla del Ponte or whoever. I don't want to lose another day of my life because of him."


Public and political opinion alike seem to be in favour of extraditing the former Yugoslav president to The Hague, with the politicians more eager than ever.


Serbian members of the ruling DOS coalition are pushing for the law on extradition to be adopted in Thursday's session of the federal parliament, but face obstacles in the form of Montenegrin deputies from the Socialist People's Party, SNP.


A DOS session on Tuesday night suggested that, faced with the certainty of the SNP rejecting the extradition law, the coalition should push for it to be adopted on a republic rather than federal level.


There appear to be several reasons behind the sudden public and political eagerness to send Milosevic to The Hague.


Serbs have long been told that ex-head of state should be tried at home, that The Hague is anti-Serb and that existing laws do not allow for extradition of Serbian nationals to foreign countries.


But new evidence of mass graves of what are presumed to be Kosovo Albanians coupled with the fact that Serbia's economic future is tied to the extradition of the former president, have combined to swing public opinion against Milosevic.


While some analysts believe the government's efforts to press ahead with the law on extradition has been prompted by new revelations over Kosovo war crimes, others believe that, as usual, it is all about money


The majority of deputies in the Yugoslav and the Serbian government tend to tie the future of the country to the donors' conference scheduled for June 29, at which financial help will be allocated according to the degree of Serbia's cooperation with The Hague.


"If we receive help, we shall have a better standard of living," said Serbian deputy prime minister Miroljub Labus. "And, the money will come only if we extradite Milosevic."


The authorities appeared to have had their work cut out convincing ordinary folk of the need to extradite Milosevic, having previously persuaded them to believe that The Hague was an anti-Serb body.


The media has played the most important part in changing the public mood. A report in Timocka Crime Review on corpses uncovered in a freezer lorry dumped in the Danube followed by the exhumations of bodies at Batajnica and more recent mass grave revelations, have begun to loosen Milosevic's hold over the Serbian people.


In Batajnica, a Belgrade suburb, police, Hague investigators and medical experts have been investigating human remains over the past three weeks.


According to claims by a police official, who wished to remain anonymous, over 1,000 corpses were transported from Kosovo to Serbia in freezer trucks during 1999; 800 of the bodies were buried in Batajnica.


A new mass grave, containing between 25 to 30 corpses, was discovered late last week near a police training centre close to the town of Kladovo, eastern Serbia. It is assumed that they too were transported from Kosovo during the war.


In another development, the Belgrade daily Danas reported on June 16 on moves by a Novi Sad court to begin an investigation into the recovery of between 40 and 70 corpses from the Danube in the early 1990s. According to Novi Sad investigators, forensic experts from Croatia will be allowed to take part in the identification of the corpses.


The local media increasingly debates the Milosevic regime's cover-up of atrocities, frequently publishing documents implicating former officials in war crimes.


Among these, the most startling was the document published by Danas on April 30, 1999, and signed by General-Major Vladimir Lazarevic, the then commander of Pristina Corps. The document orders army and police units to "clean-up the battlefield after the anti-terrorist actions".


The weekly Nedeljni Telegraf published reports, confirmed by the police, that a Kosovo attrocities' cover-up was allegedly ordered by Milosevic during an official meeting at his residence in March 1999. But the Serbs as yet hold no evidence showing Milosevic's direct responsibility for the crimes.


The district court in Belgrade announced on Monday that it had completed an investigation into the former Yugoslav president and his former close associates, but also that an autopsy of the bodies found in Batajnica is underway.


So there appears to be strong indications that Serbia is willing to extradite Milosevic.


Serbian members of the ruling DOS coalition are determined to pass the extradition legislation, seemingly even if this means falling out with Montenegrins and threatening the future of the federation.


Even the Serbian justice minister Vladan Batic told the daily Politika, "We'll wait a few more days, and if the[ir] answer's still no [on adopting the extradition law], we'll have to prepare people at home and abroad for the idea that Serbia looks set to become an independent state".


Meanwhile, Serbian supreme court judge Zoran Ivosevic, interviewed by Danas, suggested that an extradition law was unnecessary. He said Yugoslavia's readmission to the UN meant that it would adhere to its laws and obligations - the transfer of indicted Balkan war criminals to The Hague being one of them.


Such a high profile statement seems, again, to be suggesting that extradition is inevitable. Not that everyone in Serbia is convinced that latest developments justify putting Milosevic on trial at the tribunal.


"Some Shiptar [derogatory name for Albanians] graves are being dug up - but no one talks about our graves in Kosovo any longer," said one Serb.


"We should try him here. Milosevic has destroyed us, not the Albanians and the Croats," said another, convinced the evidence of mass graves has been concocted by the authorities. "The politicians want to deceive us yet again."


Marina Grihovic is IWPR's war crimes correspondent in Serbia and also works for the Belgrade daily Blic.