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REGIONAL REPORT: Serbia: Milutinovic Extradition Ploy

Serbian premier looks to use deportation of Hague indictee as leverage in his dealings with international community.
By Zeljko Cvijanovic

Milan Milutinovic, the former Serbian president indicted for war crimes, is said to be keen to surrender to The Hague but the authorities won't let him. Or rather, they will, if by doing so they can use him as a bargaining chip.


Milutinovic, jointly charged with Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity and other charges arising from the Kosovo war, was from the start, a Milosevic placeman, manoeuvred into the position of president of Serbia only because he was totally loyal to the then Yugoslav head of state.


Holding a post that effectively carried little executive power must have been humiliating, but now Milutinovic hopes it will be his trump card in a very unusual defence - not so much that he was following orders, but that he had no authority to take or give orders in the first place.


"I do not feel I bear any guilt for the command responsibility for the conflict in former Yugoslavia, because the army and the police were out of my jurisdiction," Milutinovic has said previously to the media.


In fact, he believes that his inclusion in the Milosevic indictment is a ghastly mistake - and one he hopes to soon put right.


As president of Serbia at the outbreak of the war with NATO in 1999, he was automatically co-opted onto the Yugoslav security council which ran the Serb side of the war, and whose decisions led to thousands of ethnic Albanians being killed by army, police and paramilitary forces in Kosovo.


Milutinovic, who made history as possibly the keenest of any war crimes indictees to surrender to the tribunal, has argued that he controlled no one.


In December 2001, this reporter was told by Milutinovic that "he (Milosevic) was in charge of the government, and I as a president with my small constitutional competencies could do nothing about that."


Whether this line of argument will work with Hague judges remains to be seen.


Others indicted together with Milosevic have suffered different fates: Nikola Sainovic and General Dragoljub Ojdanic are awaiting trial in The Hague, while Vlajko Stojiljkovic committed suicide last spring.


Last year, Belgrade implored The Hague not to insist on Milutinovic's imminent surrender, worried that his removal would trigger yet another election in an already turbulent country.


This excuse has now run out as his term in office ended at the beginning of the month, yet the authorities are still stalling.


Officially, the reason is that courts have yet to decide whether the extradition is lawful.


But one government official, speaking under condition of anonymity, told IWPR that the real reason was a lot simpler - the government is desperate for a bargaining chip.


On March 31, the US Congress will decide on further funding for Belgrade's ailing economy. Other funders will follow the US lead.


The United Nations, meanwhile, is considering possible sanctions against Belgrade after the war crimes court handed it a list of 11 suspects, including Milutinovic.


Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic fears arresting some of these men - in particular army commanders, such as former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, who many regard as a patriot - would lead to a nationalist backlash.


The authorities want to meet The Hague half way, by handing over enough bureaucrats - like Milutinovic, whose extradition few here will protest - from the tribunal's suspects list to persuade the UN to drop its threat of sanctions.


What Milutinovic thinks of all this is unclear, as he has refused to answer questions on the matter.


According to the IWPR source, Milutinovic has been in intensive contact with the Belgrade office of the tribunal ever since the first half of 2001, when he is said to have made the decision to give himself up.


The same source said Djindjic, to whom Milutinovic was loyal, persuaded him not to do so, as extradition would have meant early presidential elections which the Serbian prime minister's main political rival, Yugoslav head of state Vojislav Kostunica, would have contested and, quite possibly, won.


Officially, Djindjic claimed that Milutinovic was immune to prosecution because he was an office holder. But The Hague, a UN court, insists there is no defence against indictment - as it proved by indicting Milosevic while he was Yugoslav president.


Belgrade passed an extradition law last April and the courts are currently assessing whether it can be employed to hand Milutinovic over to The Hague. Judges have to establish that a condition of the legislation is met - that deportation would not endanger national security.


At the same time, the same source claims, Milutinovic spoke with representatives of the Belgrade office of the tribunal earlier this month about technical details of his surrender and transport.


The Hague, however, is maintaining a hard line, insisting Milutinovic's extradition will not release Belgrade from its obligations to round up the other suspects.


Milutinovic's role in The Hague could be very interesting, as he is the only official from Milosevic's government who showed signs that he would be prepared to offer The Hague real cooperation.


Western diplomats in Belgrade say Milutinovic was one of the more moderate, realistic officials in the former Serbian regime.


He earned this image during Dayton peace conference negotiations in 1995, having been called from his previous post, as Greek ambassador, to become chief of diplomacy for the Yugoslav delegation at the talks.


His reputation was enhanced at the international conference on Kosovo at Rambouillet, France, in February 1999. But he could do little to dissuade Milosevic from rejecting the international peace plan. "Que sera sera" were the words with which Milutinovic ended his speech at the summit.


Milosevic had grown wary of Milutinovic, warning him of the consequences of actions long before Rambouillet. After the summit, their relations continued to sour and the former simply sidelined the latter.


This made it easier for Milutinovic to change sides after the fall of Milosevic on October 5, 2000, and state his loyalty to the new government.


During the remainder of his term in office, he kept an ultra-low profile, which suited Djindjic as he struggled to carve out a workable government.


That could soon change, as his appearance at The Hague is likely to reveal much about the Milosevic's chain of command.


Milutinovic will argue that he had little influence over decisions, but the prosecution may counter that while this may have been the case he knew what was going on and therefore should have resigned.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor of the Belgrade weekly magazine Blic News.


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