Gone for a president’s ransom

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appeared for the first time on Tuesday before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The defiant Milosevic treated the tribunal with the derision he thought it deserved, questioning the tribunal’s legitimacy and describing it as a “political circus.” The proceedings were promptly adjourned.

Technically Milosevic — the first democratically-elected president to be indicted for crimes since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials in the aftermath of World War II — has a point. When the United Nations Security Council established the international criminal tribunal by adopting resolution 827 in May 1993, it purported to try those responsible for war crimes committed in war-torn Yugoslavia since 1991.

Milosevic was not initially one of those war criminals, even though Western powers knew all too well that he could have been charged with “command responsibilities.” At one point, during the so-called Dayton negotiations in 1997-98 aimed at securing a political settlement in Bosnia, Western powers, including the United States, declined to name Milosevic as a war crime suspect — they were, of course, dealing with Milosevic as a legitimate and democratically-elected leader. After the 1999 US-led NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia — itself a heinous war crime because it left in its wake a ruinous trail of wanton destruction and a heavy civilian death toll — Milosevic was branded a “war criminal.”

So why Milosevic? Obviously, not all criminals are caught. But why are some hotly pursued while others, like Israel’s Premier Ariel Sharon, are permitted to escape justice? Perhaps a clue lies in Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad by Welsh journalist Gordon Thomas, formerly with Britain’s Daily Express, who probes into why Israel’s MOSSAD plotted Milosevic’s demise a decade ago. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet walks free, Sharon has a licence to kill — which he used in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla in Lebanon in 1982. Similarly, a trial of Indonesia’s former President Suharto for war crimes in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Acheh would open up a can of worms and implicate the US and Australia.

Milosevic’s arrest comes as no surprise, not least because the former Serbian strongman was the only European leader who dared stand up to the US and NATO. His fate was sealed when he forcibly tried to hold on to Bosnia and then Kosovo in the wake of Yugoslavia’s break-up.

“It now smacks of the grossest hypocrisy for the US to deny the same justice to others it has so zealously carved out for itself and its friends,” warned US Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. Milosevic categorically stated in the dock that the trial’s real, albeit undeclared, goal was to legitimise NATO intervention in Yugoslavia and to justify “the war crimes [committed by] NATO in Yugoslavia.”

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, once dismissed by Milosevic as “Albright’s poodle,” played the hunting hound. Taking his cue from a clause in the Serbian Constitution which gives primacy to Serbian over federal Yugoslav institutions in certain instances, Djindjic extradited Milosevic last Thursday to the international war tribunal in The Hague. He did not even bother to consult Federal Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica. Djindjic and other collaborators were promptly rewarded with $1.3 billion in aid to Yugoslavia. The ransom money now thrown at Yugoslavia is a mere fraction of the estimated $30 billion in damages resulting from the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia. Most of the money, though, will actually go to pay Yugoslavia’s creditors, who are owed $12.2 billion.

Just as General Pinochet found a champion in Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Milosevic is not without backers, even in the US. “Not in my darkest dreams could I imagine that the Serbian government could engage in a criminal act of surrendering one of their greatest citizens,” remarked former US Attorney-General Ramsey Clark, who is launching an international campaign against Milosevic’s illegal extradition.

The Constitutional Court in Belgrade had previously refused to approve the Serbian government decree to extradite Milosevic, and the former strongman’s extradition instantly provoked a Yugoslav government crisis. The Yugoslav federal prime minister, Zoran Zizic, resigned in protest against the extradition, and all his fellow Montenegrin members of the coalition resigned with him. A tenuous union binds the landlocked but 10.5 million-strong Serbia to its tiny Adriatic Sea outlet, Montenegro, a nation of barely 600,000.

The mood in Serbia appears little changed from its hard line of a year ago in spite of the change in administration. Milosevic’s supporters seem less willing to compromise. Milosevic himself suffered swinging punishment, but he still has the backing of a considerable segment of the Yugoslav population. To indict him, they point out, is to indict the entire Serbian people who elected him their leader and, by and large, shared his animosity towards other ethnic peoples in the former Yugoslavia.

Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj appealed to the Serbian people to stop the “handover of our heroes to The Hague.” Seselj called Yugoslavia’s new rulers “traitors.” His is not a lone voice.

Milosevic’s arrest on Thursday was laden with ominous symbolism. It is hard to believe that the choice of 28 June was sheer coincidence. On that very special day for Serbs, Gavrilo Princip killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, sparking off World War I, which ultimately led to Yugoslavia’s independence from Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg rule. Even more poignant, Thursday also marked the 612th anniversary of the Vidovdan, the celebrated day in 1389 which marked the birth of the Serbian nation after Serb peasants defeated their Turkish overlords in the battle of Kosovo. Moreover, Milosevic ordered his clamp down on Albanian separatists on 28 June 1998.

Carla del Ponto, the Swiss chief prosecutor at the tribunal in The Hague, could not have been unaware of the irony when she said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek: “The Serbian people are not on trial here. The history of Serbia is not under examination.” Despite its currency in the Balkans, and especially in Yugoslavia, national identity is not a fashionable topic in Europe these days.

Milosevic’s Socialist Party lost substantial ground to moderate parties in a massive protest vote against the manner in which Milosevic handled the Kosovo crisis. However, there is still widespread anger and disillusion. The economy has ground to a halt, but bad economic news has not been limited to growth. Yugoslavia’s budget deficit stands at $300 million. Unemployment hovers at about 30 per cent. Inflation has risen from well below 10 per cent in 1991 to 50 per cent in 1999 and a spiralling 80 per cent today. Prices of petrol and consumer commodities have skyrocketed.

For all these disappointments, the Yugoslav people have at least one reason to be sanguine, if not cheerful, the Americans and West Europeans insist. With Milosevic’s Socialists out of the way, a democratic Yugoslavia more fully integrated into the new world order can expect to raise $150 million by selling off such state assets as the national carrier JAT, which has a modern fleet and well-trained pilots. The plum on the pie would undoubtedly be the privatisation of Zastava, one of East Europe’s largest arms manufacturers, which is also on the cards. Yugoslavia has much scope for growth- enhancing structural reform. However, Yugoslavia’s new benefactors warn that the new leaders will have to kick start the process, which under Milosevic was pushed to one side.