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

Is Serbia Gearing Up for Hague Cooperation?

There are growing signs that Belgrade is prepared to do the tribunal’s bidding.
By John Simpson

Serbia appears to be making serious efforts to deliver high-level indicted war criminals to The Hague, IWPR can reveal.


The government is said to have been prompted to act because it fears that failure to do so will lead to diplomatic isolation and jeopardise the ruling coalition.


Two independent sources, with high-level positions in the Serbian police and the government, say Belgrade is working hard to capture the former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic by the end of September.


In they fail to track him down, the authorities have already negotiated the surrender of two indicted Serbian generals instead, the sources say.


The change on the part of the authorities is the result of mounting pressure on Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica by his coalition partners, the newly elected president, Boris Tadic, and the international community. They are all optimistic that cooperation with the Hague tribunal is about to be stepped up.


If Kostunica does not comply, there is an imminent threat of diplomatic isolation and the possibility of new elections, analysts say.


International pressure upon Belgrade has mounted over the past few months, with warnings that Serbia will not be able to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme, PfP, and an EU feasibility study for Serbia and Montenegro will be put on ice until cooperation with the Hague court is implemented.


Concerning Mladic, a senior Serbian government official, who preferred to remain anonymous, said there was “a fragile agreement” within the government that the ex-Bosnian Serb military leader, or some of the four generals from the Serbian army and police indicted last autumn, should go to The Hague by the end of the first week of September.


Another source, this time in the police, claimed several operations had been undertaken to establish Mladic’s whereabouts in cooperation with foreign intelligence services.


The source said this cooperation had now moved onto a higher level in recent weeks. Whereas before, foreign intelligence services were only informed of attempts that had been made, now they were all closely operating in the search for Mladic.


While the United States is widely believed to have a strong presence in the hunt, the US ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro, Michael Polt, denied this week American and Serbian security services were working together.


IWPR’s government source said that the Belgrade authorities had attempted to make contact with Mladic through his family and through others considered close to him, but had failed.


This source said several “suspicious characters” had tried to sell their services as intermediaries between government officials and the fugitive.


According to the source, Serbian government officials say one problem they face in hunting down Mladic is that he is now cut off from official army structures and has covered his tracks by maintaining contacting with only a minimal number of people.


If Mladic is not arrested, the Serbian government will try to appease the international community by extraditing some of the four army generals and police chiefs indicted last year, the source said.


According to him, Belgrade has made arrangements with two of them for their voluntary surrender, which is to become effective if Mladic’s whereabouts remain unknown.


Generals Nebojsa Pavkovic, Milosevic’s army chief of staff, and Sreten Lukic, a former chief of Serbian police, are accused of crimes committed in Kosovo between 1998 and 1999. According to the Serbian government source, they are both willing to surrender.


The same source said Lukic, who has heart problems, had undergone heart surgery within the last week so that he can recuperate before a journey to The Hague. IWPR has tried to contact both Lukic and Pavkovic to check this information but neither man was available for comment.


The remaining two generals indicted for war crimes committed in Kosovo, namely Vlastimir Djordjevic, a senior police official in Milosevic's regime, and Pavkovic’s close associate, Vladimir Lazarevic, have shown no signs of being ready to surrender voluntarily.


Djordjevic, who disappeared early in 2001, is reportedly hiding in Russia, while Lazarevic, who remains in Serbia, has rejected talk of surrendering.


On July 18, he told BK TV his transfer and that of the other generals would be “a betrayal of those who died and would amount to granting an amnesty to the perpetrators of crimes against the Serbs”.


There are other signs that Belgrade is more willing to cooperate that before. One is the recent announcement of the government’s National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal that it will grant permissions for some of the almost 70 witnesses the court has requested over the past years to testify.


The council also announced it would declassify and release some of the documents the tribunal has requested.


These, according to Hague insiders, include the archives of the Serbian ministry of interior as well as Mladic’s personal military file, which could show how long into the Bosnian war the general remained on Belgrade’s pay role.


Florence Hartmann, spokesperson for the tribunal chief prosecutor, Carle del Ponte, denied her office had received any new document or witness waivers since the council’s last meeting a week ago. The council’s statements, she said, were “only words”.


But in spite of this sceptical comment, some tribunal insiders are more emollient, saying Belgrade has expressed “good intentions.” One said, “It seems they really want to give Mladic this time.”


The tribunal’s decision this week to provisionally release two senior former Serbian secret policemen is seen by some as further proof that an understanding between the Serbian government and the international community has been reached.


The Serbian government had made the temporary release of Jovan Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, indicted for coordinating ethnic cleansing during the wars in Bosnia and Croatia, their number one priority in their dealings with the Hague tribunal.


Belgrade analysts suggest the move is a goodwill gesture on the part of international community.


“You can be sure that the temporary release of Stanisic and Simatovic is what the Serbian government has been requesting for some time now,” said Predrag Simic, director of the Serbian foreign ministry’s diplomatic academy.


“The release of Stanisic and Simatovic to the custody of the Serbian government will certainly be seen as a goodwill gesture which could be interpreted as part of a deal.”


Bratislav Grubacic, general manager of the VIP news service, told IWPR, “These releases may mean that the Serbian government is now willing to cooperate over the transfer of other indictees.”


In diplomatic circles there is a strong belief that Serbia will finally deliver on its obligations to the tribunal. A senior US official, close to the American under secretary for political affairs, Marc Grossman, told IWPR that in a meeting between Grossman and Kostunica in Belgrade on July 7, Kostunica was informed that Mladic remained a top priority; this official added that there had been no disagreement on the matter.


“We have already seen stumped-up efforts by the Belgrade authorities to catch Mladic and cooperate with The Hague,” he said. “There is the notion that something will be done quickly.”


There are no signs that the international community is using the threat of economic sanctions in the event on Serbian non-compliance. It is thought that stalled negotiations with NATO and EU are enough.


Christina Gallach, spokeswoman for Javier Solana, the EU’s high representative for common foreign and security policy, told IWPR, “The policy of the EU is not to hold back Serbia. Sanctions are out of the question. We have a good understanding now and we expect movements.”


Joachim Bleicker, charge d'affairs at the German embassy in Belgrade, told IWPR, “ There is genuine cooperation – we expect indictees to be handed over anytime soon.”


Another senior western diplomat in Brussels echoed this line, “We now expect full cooperation - there can be no more excuses.”


Some believe the international community’s optimism is naïve, considering Belgrade’s record of evasion in the past and its formerly negative attitude towards The Hague. Others, however, say well-founded reports of increased cooperation between the Serbian and foreign security services point to a real change of attitude.


These hopes have been strengthened by the victory last month of the pro-western candidate in the presidential election, Boris Tadic.


One western diplomat based in Belgrade said, “After this election, the Belgrade authorities have no doubt about their commitments to The Hague and we are confident they will fulfil these.”


Dusan Pavlovic, an independent Belgrade analyst, says cooperation has been boosted by the new president, “My opinion is that cooperation is rising. It is not so much the government but Tadic who is leading that improvement.”


Tadic is known to support Mladic’s transfer to The Hague. On a recent visit to the US he announced that Serbia was “ready to take on its international obligations”, admitting that Mladic was “the biggest obstacle”.


On his return he reiterated this, declaring that Serbia “will work together [with the US] to get out of the position we find ourselves in today”.


Kostunica has also come under pressure to alter his inflexible attitude towards The Hague from his coalition partners. Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, of the reformist G17 party, and Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement, SPO, strongly favour the arrest of Hague indictees.


Both parties fear Serbia will be sidelined from western integration processes in the case of the non-arrest and transfer of Mladic, entailing dire consequences for the country, which in turn, will jeopardise the current fragile government.


On July 9, Labus announced there would soon be “strong evidence” of Serbia's cooperation with the tribunal.


“We will have to make significant progress in cooperation with The Hague soon,” he told the Austrian news agency APA, adding that “in a month or two” there would be clear proof of Serbia's comprehensive cooperation with the international court.


Sonja Biserko, of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, told IWPR she believed the government would cooperate, against all its real instincts. “This government does not want to cooperate with The Hague but because of political and economic pressures will be forced to,” she said.


Kostunica has already signalled a shift in his position. On July 18, the premier told the main board of his Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, that The Hague had become “the most important issue”.


“There are several modalities for cooperation with the Hague tribunal ... we are simply looking for those options which are more favourable for us,” he said, adding that the best option would be if “some individuals decided to turn themselves in”.


Nebojsa Bakarec, a DSS official, said that the party still hoped for voluntary surrenders. “First of all we should count on their conscience and willingness to surrender themselves voluntarily,” he said.


An unnamed Serbian government official added that Kostunica’s final position on the Mladic case would be revealed if and when Mladic's whereabouts were disclosed to him.


“Only then will we see whether Kostunica has been intensively searching for Mladic in order to arrest him, or just to prove he is not hiding in Serbia,” he said, adding that Mladic’s fate lay exclusively in Kostunica’s hands, however reluctant the premier was to embrace this responsibility.


The same source added that Kostunica might well resign over the Mladic issue. The popularity of Kostunica’s party is falling and the sooner new elections are called, the better the party’s chance of re-election.


His resignation may occur before the surrender of Mladic, to maintain the patriotic image he has long cultivated, and which appeals strongly to Serbia’s large anti-Hague lobby.


By resigning after Mladic’s delivery, on the other hand, he could claim that he had put the future of Serbia before his own anti-Hague sentiments.


A resignation over Mladic might appeal to many voters. As many as 65 per cent of Serbian citizens, according to a Marten Board International survey, see the tribunal as biased and say Serbia should not cooperate with the court. Either way, Kostunica faces this dilemma on his own.


Zeljko Cvijanovic is the editor of the Belgrade weekly Evropa.


John Simpson is an IWPR contributor based in London. Tanja Matic is an IWPR investigative journalist in Belgrade. Hugh Griffiths is IWPR investigations coordinator.


Ana Uzelac is IWPR programme manager in The Hague.


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