As the bodies of civilians killed in 1999 by Yugoslav forces were removed this week from mass graves near Belgrade, the Yugoslav government faced a growing crisis over Slobodan Milosevic's possible extradition to The Hague. Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica is facing opposition on the issue from his coalition government's Montenegrin partners, who do not support passing a law enabling the handover of Milosevic to the United Nations war crimes tribunal.
Prague, 7 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Evidence against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic mounted this week, as the bodies of people killed by Yugoslav forces in the 1999 war in Kosovo were exhumed from mass graves near Belgrade.
The discovery of the graves provides fresh proof for those who support Milosevic's extradition to the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague. But even with the discovery of dozens -- and possibly hundreds -- of bodies at three sites around the capital, the leadership of the junior partner in Yugoslavia's ruling coalition has continued to oppose the handing over of Milosevic.
The Socialist People's Party (SNP) from the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro has resisted pressure from its Serbian partners in the Yugoslav parliament to support proposed legislation that would enable Milosevic's extradition. SNP leader Predrag Bulatovic said this week that handing Yugoslavs over to the tribunal was a violation of the Yugoslav Constitution.
Although the SNP has been a Milosevic ally in the past, Bulatovic said his party is not trying to protect the ousted leader.
But if the extradition legislation is not passed, Yugoslavia may lose its chance to win U.S. backing at an international aid conference in Brussels at the end of the month.
Montenegro analyst Peter Palmer, who works for the private International Crisis Group, says it is wrong to see the Montenegrin opposition in the Yugoslav parliament as representative of Montenegro's overall political stance:
"It's actually a mistake to see this as Montenegro's opposition. It's [more] a question of the opposition of the pro-Yugoslav parties in Montenegro. The majority of the Montenegrin political spectrum -- we're talking about the Democratic Party of Socialists of President Milo Djukanovic, the Social Democratic Party, [and] also the Liberal Alliance of Montenegro -- these are all the pro-independence parties, who together hold the majority in the Montenegrin parliament. These parties are all for full cooperation with the Hague tribunal."
When Montenegro's pro-independence parties boycotted last September's Yugoslav elections, Serbian democratic parties found themselves stuck with pro-Milosevic groups as their Montenegrin counterparts in parliament. Palmer says these deputies are now attempting to block the extradition of Milosevic because they still support the ousted leader.
"A large part of this [SNP] party and its support in Montenegro are people who genuinely do support Milosevic. And one can see it from figures from within the party. They see Milosevic as a patriot and a national hero. It's very hard for them to get away from that viewpoint. So I think loyalty to Milosevic is as important to them as anything else on this issue."
But Palmer believes that the democratic alliance in Serbia will find a way to override Montenegrin opposition to Milosevic's extradition. Palmer says they are under increasing international pressure to turn over the deposed president.
"The DOS (Democratic Opposition of Serbia) in Serbia will find ways to cooperate with The Hague. There are already indications of the sorts of things that might be possible. For example, we hear reports that it may not be necessary after all, they're saying in Belgrade, to have a special law on cooperation with The Hague. [This accepts] the viewpoint that The Hague itself has always taken -- that because the war crimes tribunal in The Hague is an international court set up by the UN, and not a separate country, it's not a matter of extradition. The Yugoslav Constitution bans extradition of Yugoslav citizens. [DOS leaders] are now starting to argue that because it's a court under the UN, it's not a matter of extradition. Yugoslavia is a member of the UN, so they can and should cooperate in extraditing their citizens."
This week's discovery of mass graves filled with the remains of civilians killed by Yugoslav forces in Kosovo has added new fuel to the debate over whether Milosevic should be sent to the tribunal. Radu Maraf, an editor with the Beta news agency in Belgrade, says the outrage over the mass graves has heated up efforts to extradite Milosevic, who was ousted in a public uprising last October and has been held in a Belgrade prison since being arrested two months ago (April 1):
"It's pretty shocking for the Serbian public, basically because it never happened before and everyone strongly denied it in the past. So on one side, it's a big shock for them. And on the other side, it's still unclear how many bodies there are. Time will tell. But for now, we can say that this is a major step towards sending Milosevic to The Hague."
Maraf said that the discovery of the mass graves -- one of which reportedly holds the remains of at least 86 people -- will force Serbian citizens to recognize the crimes committed by Milosevic. He said this recognition is important, both for creating the political will to hand Milosevic over, and for the future health of Serbia.