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Yugoslavia: Kostunica Softens Stand On Milosevic Extradition

  • Jolyon Naegele

During a visit to Washington this week, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said cooperation with the UN's war crimes tribunal at The Hague is necessary for his country to become a good member of the United Nations. He also said he wanted to see a draft extradition law ready by the end of this month to allow former President Slobodan Milosevic to be tried at The Hague. Both statements mark important changes in Kostunica's attitude toward cooperating with the UN tribunal. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele traces the evolution in Kostunica's position since taking office seven months ago.

Prague, 11 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last 5 October, hundreds of thousands of Serbs descended on Belgrade in a concerted effort to overthrow Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic after he refused to admit defeat in elections the previous month.

At a rally protesters vented their anger shouting:

"You are protecting him [Milosevic]! Shame on you! Let's go, brothers-- come here, come [police] commander, come commander! Nobody will hurt you."

The Yugoslav military and Serbian Interior Ministry withdrew their support for Milosevic, who shortly thereafter met with the man who had defeated him in the elections, opposition activist and constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica. Milosevic then announced his resignation.

The former president was allowed to continue to reside in the presidential mansion and to retain a number of security guards. Milosevic is believed to have demanded assurances he would not be extradited to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where he faces charges of having committed crimes against humanity in Kosovo two years ago.

The day after the mass protests and on the eve of his inauguration, Kostunica publicly dismissed The Hague tribunal as a "tool of U.S. foreign policy." Ever since then, however, Kostunica's attitude toward the tribunal has been softening while nevertheless retaining a Serbian nationalist tinge.

In mid-November, five weeks after taking office, he suggested that although the tribunal was not quite up to the task of revealing the whole truth, he was willing to let it try.

"I think that one institution, something that has been created by man at a particular moment, The Hague tribunal, is of course not enough to get the whole picture of the truth. But anything that may bring us closer to the truth is something that one should support, and in that way we are looking to cooperation with The Hague tribunal and the opening of the office in Belgrade."

Still, in advance of a January visit to Belgrade by the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, Kostunica expressed frustration -- from a legal point of view -- with The Hague tribunal's practice of preparing sealed indictments that were only made public after the detention of the suspect.

"The very interesting matter for me, as a lawyer, is that of the so-called sealed indictments. Although I have been following the history of [the] struggle for human rights and developments in that area, and the developments in the area of the rule of law, I found out that maybe after more than 10 centuries, in this modern society, the struggle for rule of law and human rights, there is nothing that resembles sealed indictments."

One week later (23 January), Kostunica met briefly with Del Ponte. But after she walked out of the meeting early and visibly angry, he issued a statement accusing the tribunal of bias because, he said, most of those it has indicted for war crimes are Serbs.

In an interview published the following day (in "The New York Times"), Kostunica ruled out extraditing Milosevic for the foreseeable future. He said: "Until our country is stabilized and democratized to the full, until it establishes genuinely democratic institutions, any legal actions could turn into a mockery of justice and mere revenge." Instead, Kostunica announced he would be willing to see Milosevic stand trial on war crimes and domestic charges in Yugoslavia.

Serbian authorities finally took Milosevic into custody on 1 April in an effort to meet a deadline set by the U.S. Congress to demonstrate it was cooperating with the tribunal or forfeit further financial aid. Kostunica then declared: "Milosevic's accountability is enormous, above all to his own nation." But he also insisted that others -- the leaders of other former constituent republics of Yugoslavia and of the international community -- should also be brought to account.

At the same time, as the likelihood increased that Milosevic would eventually be extradited to The Hague, Kostunica (on 3 April) appeared to be trying to absolve himself of responsibility.

"This [extradition] does not fall within the competence of the president of the republic. But the president can certainly have a position on this issue. And my opinion is that the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, or cooperation with The Hague [tribunal] to this end, is not something which the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is now considering. What it is considering is the political and the legal responsibility of Slobodan Milosevic to our authorities."

Kostunica also reiterated that Milosevic's accountability is first and foremost to the Serbian nation.

"The responsibility of Slobodan Milosevic is above all before his own nation. That responsibility was shown in the two elections last year in Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 24 September and 23 December. This responsibility encompasses what Milosevic did and what he allowed to be done. The accountability includes the destruction of the state and the drastic impoverishment of the people. This accountability concerns [acts] committed in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which today consists of Serbia and Montenegro."

On Tuesday (8 May), Kostunica visited Secretary-General Kofi Annan at UN headquarters in New York where, in response to queries about the prospects for extraditing Milosevic, he declared that a legal framework must be established to enable Milosevic's transfer.

"We are very firm about, and aware of, our international obligations, including those with The Hague tribunal, but we need a legal frame for that cooperation at this moment."

The next day, Kostunica met in Washington with President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell ruled out U.S. participation in a donor's conference where Belgrade hopes to raise $1 billion in aid unless Yugoslavia shows greater readiness to cooperate with The Hague tribunal.

"I indicated to him that the donor's conference, and our participation in the donor's conference, was part of that conditioning and I look forward to seeing what else Yugoslavia will be doing in the weeks ahead."

With Powell at his side, Kostunica then announced that a law defining cooperation with The Hague tribunal is now being prepared in Belgrade which will legally regulate Yugoslavia's cooperation with the tribunal.

"That law should be adopted. It should be adopted as soon as possible. That is the frame[work] for our cooperation. Because we were speaking in terms not of personal issues, but something that is more important than the personal issues, and that is the rule of law and legality."

A short while later, however, in a talk at a Washington think tank (the Cato Institute), Kostunica's belief that Serbs should be tried by Serbs resurfaced. He said: "Justice should be in [Serb] hands and not the hands of foreigners."