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Yugoslavia: Envoy Defends Belgrade's Record On Reform

The world welcomed Vojislav Kostunica when he defeated Slobodan Milosevic for Yugoslavia's presidency in September. Now, some observers are expressing impatience with the pace of reform there. On Tuesday, Belgrade's ambassador to the U.S. had to face four critics at a hearing in Washington of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Washington, 7 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Critics of the new Yugoslav government had a four-to-one advantage over Belgrade's ambassador to the U.S. during a hearing in Washington on Tuesday of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

The CSCE -- better known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission -- said it wanted to assess the commitment of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica to reform since he defeated Slobodan Milosevic in last September's election. Specifically, the commission cited promoting democracy and ethnic tolerance, restoring the rule of law, and cooperating with the international community to reverse damage done by Milosevic during his decade in power.

As far as the CSCE is concerned, "cooperating with the international community" mostly means surrendering Milosevic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), along with other former Yugoslav government officials charged with war crimes.

Tuesday's hearing was important for Yugoslavia because Belgrade has until March 31 to demonstrate to the U.S. Congress that it is moving ahead with reforms. Otherwise it may not receive $100 million in desperately needed financial assistance.

Addressing the hearing were Yugoslavia's ambassador to Washington, Milan Protic, and four other witnesses. And all the other witnesses -- representing private human rights groups -- said they believe Kostunica and his government have not moved quickly enough to implement reform.

These witnesses were Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Serbian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights; Nina Bang-Jensen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice; James Lyon of the International Crisis Group; and Daniel Serwer, director of the Balkans Initiative of the United States Institute for Peace.

Their feelings were summed up by Biserko:

"The new Belgrade government has made some encouraging moves, but has also demonstrated pronounced reluctance to confront major issues."

According to the witnesses, Belgrade is moving too slowly to reform a corrupt judicial system. They say it is maintaining too close a relationship with the Srpska Republic, the Serb entity in Bosnia, by giving it political and financial support. But the most important issue to these witnesses is that Milosevic and other suspected war criminals are not being turned over to the Hague tribunal for trial.

Bang-Jensen said it is baseless for Belgrade to warn of a public outcry if Milosevic is sent to the Hague for trial. She said public-opinion surveys of Serbs show that a large majority favor this option.

"Recent polls indicate support for a transfer of Milosevic to the Hague as high as 66 percent -- 60 percent for Milosevic and 66 percent on the transfer of other indictees."

Protic repeated the stand that Kostunica -- a constitutional lawyer -- has made since he was elected president: Yugoslavia's constitution forbids sending a citizen outside the country for criminal prosecution. Instead, he said, Belgrade will act on its own to bring Milosevic and his associates to justice. And at Tuesday's hearing, he declared that Milosevic will be in custody before the March 31 deadline.

"No one in the international community will be very enthusiastic about taking upon himself the job of putting Milosevic under arrest, because he's got his private guard(s) which could be pretty dangerous. So even from that respect, it's up to us to do it, and, believe me, it's not going to be easy. But we are ready to do it, and we are doing everything to prepare that move. And it's going to be done before March 31, I can assure you about that, too."

Protic said it is unfair for the other witnesses to say Belgrade has made little progress in reforms during more than five months since the election. He noted that a government could not be formed until December, and that the reforms being demanded by the critics cannot be made so quickly. In particular, the ambassador said it will take many years to undo 10 years of damage that Milosevic inflicted on Yugoslavia's judiciary.

Toward the end of the hearing, a questioner asked Protic if he could summarize how the U.S. can help Yugoslavia accelerate reform.

"Money. The answer is money. We are in [a] desperate economic situation back home."

Protic said his government's first priority is the well-being of the Yugoslav people. At the moment, he said, they are in desperate need of help. But he said the governments of Yugoslavia and Serbia -- particularly the government of Serbia -- also need financial support. Otherwise, he said, they will lose power. And that, Protic said, could lead to a return to communist rule.