Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica told millions of U.S. television viewers last night that he is ready to accept the guilt for those killed in Yugoslavia's four wars during the 1990s. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, Kostunica said his predecessor, Slobodan Milosevic, is among those responsible and should eventually be put on trial.
Prague, 25 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vojislav Kostunica's remarks on a popular U.S. television news program (CBS's "60 Minutes") last night mark a significant change in his public declarations about Serbian culpability in the atrocities of the past decade as well as in his views on whether Slobodan Milosevic should be brought to justice.
"I am ready to accept the guilt for all those people that have been killed. I'm trying to, taking responsibility for what happened on my part for what Milosevic had done."
No other leading Serbian politician has publicly taken responsibility for any of the mass killings since the collapse of the former Yugoslavia in 1991.
An estimated 200,000 people were killed in Bosnia and Croatia between 1991 and 1995, and as many as 10,000 people lost their lives in Kosovo last year when Serbian forces expelled nearly one million non-Serb residents.
When asked whether Serbian forces committed genocide in Kosovo, Kostunica responded that both sides incurred casualties. That was a reference to the violence unleashed against Serbian police by the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) in the years prior to NATO's intervention last year as well as to the victims of the 78 days of NATO air strikes.
"Those are the crimes and the people that have been killed are victims. I must say also there are a lot of crimes on the other side and that Serbs have been killed."
When asked if there was any doubt in his mind that Milosevic is guilty of crimes against humanity, Kostunica responded that Milosevic is "among those responsible."
During last month's election campaign -- and even after his victory -- Kostunica often told foreign reporters that Milosevic's fate was not a high-priority issue for him. In last night's television interview, he also said that he has too many other issues to deal with, too many other priorities. Nevertheless, when asked whether he thinks Milosevic will ever stand trial, Kostunica responded, "somewhere, yes."
In a separate interview with Macedonia's Telma television today, Kostunica was more forthcoming about the real reason for not detaining Milosevic at present. "Any attempt to open the issue about the cooperation with the international war tribunal in The Hague in the case of Milosevic will destabilize the situation in Yugoslavia." Kostunica, who came to power following public demonstrations earlier this month, faces many obstacles to his goal of bringing Yugoslavia back into the European family of nations. Since being sworn into office October 7, Kostunica has met the heads of government of the 15 EU member states and the leaders of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is meeting other Balkan leaders and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke in Skopje today. And he is due to travel to Moscow on Friday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He and his allies only managed to form a Serbian caretaker government yesterday and they are still working on forming a federal government.
Milosevic remains heavily guarded in one of his suburban Belgrade compounds. Since Kostunica has yet to gain full control over the Interior Ministry, he is hardly in a position to seize Milosevic and put him on trial or extradite him.
The night before his inauguration, Kostunica -- in a Serbian television interview -- dismissed The Hague tribunal as a "tool of U.S. foreign policy." The comment was as much a reflection of his own firmly held belief as it was an indication of the extent to which even "the best and the brightest" in Belgrade suffered from Milosevic's information vacuum during the past decade.
However, it is virtually inevitable that the new leadership in Belgrade will eventually come to the same conclusion as the leadership in neighboring Croatia did over the past three years -- that cooperation and integration with the West are only possible if indicted war criminals are brought to justice.
But Kostunica, who came to power as the first democratically elected Yugoslav leader, can hardly ignore the role of public opinion. In a survey conducted last week, the Belgrade weekly "Nin" found that more than half of the 2,000 people questioned said Milosevic should not stand trial for war crimes anywhere. Some 30 percent say he should face charges in Serbia and only 9 percent favor extraditing him to The Hague tribunal.
There has been no immediate reaction in Belgrade or Pristina to Kostunica's television remarks, which were reprinted today in the Kosovar Albanian daily "Koha Ditore." Many Albanians in the province remain skeptical of Kostunica's intentions.