The arrest of Milosevic

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Wilting under Western pressure, a debt-ridden Yugoslav government arrests former President Slobodan Milosevic.

THE United States had set March 31 as the deadline for the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, and the authorities in Belgrade could not have afforded to ignore it. Failure to meet it would have meant the forfeiture of $50 million in aid from the U.S. that Belgrade needed desperately, and the freezing of all future credits and assistance by international financial institutions. For any credit or aid to come, the George W. Bush administration would have to certify that the Yugoslav government was cooperating with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Washington had made it clear that this certification would not be forthcoming until tough action was taken against Milosevic. Despite misgivings in the top echelons of the Yugoslav administration and the absence of clinching evidence of wrongdoing by Milosevic, the Serb authorities arrested him after a lot of drama and took him to a high security prison in Belgrade on April 1. Milosevic is an elected leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, the largest Opposition group in Yugoslavia.

Slobodan Milosevic, accompanied by wife and coalition partner Mira Markovic, son Marko and daughter Marija, waves to supporters after taking over as President on July 23, 1997.-PETAR KAJUNDZIC/REUTERS

During his 13 years in power, Milosevic was a tough ruler, on many occasions riding roughshod over his people and being prone to ethnic chauvinism. He presided over three disastrous military campaigns but the odds were always stacked against his country, with the other breakaway republics having the tacit support of the West. As President, Milosevic observed constitutional niceties and held regular elections. His long stay in power was to a large extent facilitated by the factious nature of the Serbian Opposition. But he was also a courageous leader. Some would say he was foolhardy to have challenged the West in a unipolar world.

Had Milosevic signed on the dotted line at Rambouillet as desired by the West and compromised his country's sovereignty by giving up Kosovo, he would not have found himself in jail now. In fact, after he signed the Dayton accords in 1995 that paved the way for the tentative peace that exists today in Bosnia, the Clinton administration had pronounced that Milosevic was a man they could do business with. However, Milosevic refused to cave in to Western pressure on Kosovo, arguing that allowing the province to become a protectorate of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would amount to a step towards the formation of a "greater Albania", which would cause even more turmoil. Recent events have added credibility to his prediction.

Milosevic's arrest came a few days after the people of Serbia commemorated the end of NATO's war on their country. For more than 72 days NATO forces rained bombs and missiles on Yugoslavia, destroying much of its infrastructure and poisoning the environment. The damage, estimated to run into billions of dollars, has caused untold misery to the people. Before Milosevic was ousted, a jury comprising prominent peace activists from different countries had held Washington and NATO responsible for crimes against humanity through unprovoked aggression against Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav government had also demanded that the West pay damages.

But, far from being apologetic the West imposed stricter sanctions against the war-ravaged country. The Serbian people were told in no uncertain terms that the only way out of the quagmire for them was to oust Milosevic from power and hand him over to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague to be tried for war crimes. After Milosevic had refused to sign away Kosovo at Rambouillet, he was promptly declared a war criminal by the Court. Extremist Serbs, Croats and Bosnians were responsible for much of the crimes against innocent civilians as they went about the task of ethnic-cleansing. Milosevic had given tacit support to the extremist Serb factions when it suited him, but so had the Croat leader, Franco Tudjman. The pro-West Tudjman, who died last year, was never accused of war crimes though some observers say he had more blood on his hands than his Serbian counterpart.

Washington had decided that Milosevic had to be made an example of what would happen to leaders who think of standing up to the West. In the 1980s, President Manuel Noriega of Panama was overthrown in an invasion and sentenced to a term of 40 years in a U.S. prison on charges of drug peddling and smuggling. There is a widespread feeling that of late the ICJ, which functions under the United Nations, has come in handy for the West. Interestingly, the U.S. is not a signatory to the ICJ Charter but is among the most vociferous supporters of the Court now.

President Vojislav Kostunica. He has consistently opposed Washington's strong-arm tactics against Milosevic.-SRDJAN ILIC/AP

MILOSEVIC was indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal in May 1999 when NATO was waging war on Yugoslavia. Milosevic has rejected the legality of the Tribunal, describing it as "a political institution, which is one of the means of carrying out genocide against the Serb people - a people who dared to defend their country and to defend their national interest". In December, while campaigning for local elections, Milosevic told the media that his conscience was "completely clear" and that he could "sleep peacefully". So far the Yugoslav government has not been able to prove conclusively any corruption charge against Milosevic.

But Carla del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunal, has been assiduously collecting evidence about the former government's financial transactions. Faced with punitive sanctions from the West, the Milosevic regime had to resort to many unorthodox stratagems and shenanigans to keep the country's economy afloat. In the process, many of the close associates of Milosevic would have made illegal gains. Del Ponte has been given 25 crates of documents relating to the financial dealings of the former Yugoslav government by the authorities in Cyprus, where much of the financial wheeling and dealing was done. Surprisingly, del Ponte has chosen not to share this sensitive information with the new government in Belgrade.

To his credit, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has consistently opposed the strong-arm methods being used by Washington to get Milosevic's head on a platter. Like many in Serbia, he has openly voiced his preference for a trial of Milosevic on charges other than those relating to the emotive issue of war crimes. Kostunica initially refused to meet Carla del Ponte during her visit to Belgrade in January. When a reluctant Kostunica finally met her, he focussed on the Yugoslav demands which included the indictment of NATO officials for the bombing of Yugoslavia and the use of depleted uranium in the war.

Other politicians opposed to Milosevic suggested the creation of an independent judiciary within the country for the exclusive purpose of trying those accused of war crimes in cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. There are also leaders like Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindic who are more amenable to cooperating with the Tribunal on the Milosevic issue. Kostunica has, however, repeatedly argued against the extradition of Milosevic and made it clear that he was not in favour of cooperating with the Tribunal. Opinion polls in Serbia have shown that the majority of the people want Milosevic tried in Serbia for things that have been done against the Serbian people.

LESS than 48 hours after the arrest of Milosevic, Washington announced the release of $50,000 in aid to Belgrade which it had withheld. President Bush has given the Yugoslav government a pat on its back for a job well done. His administration has indicated that it would like the extradition process to be accelerated, with an implicit warning that otherwise the new government in Belgrade may lose U.S. support at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Belgrade is in desperate need of debt rescheduling in order to restore the country's economic health.

The Serbian government has allowed the War Crimes Tribunal to open an office in Belgrade and sent two Serbian citizens to The Hague to be tried as war criminals. Carla del Ponte has demanded "a clear, immediate and unambiguous commitment" from the Yugoslav authorities that Milosevic will be delivered to The Hague, but Yugoslav officials have been insisting that they have no such plans. However, given the dire financial straits the Yugoslav government is in and its political indebtedness to the West, it may find the pressure irresistible.

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