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Yugoslavia: Serbia Still Only Pondering War Crimes Prosecution

In Belgrade this week, authorities detained eight former officials close to ex-President Slobodan Milosevic as part of an investigation into fraud and abuse of office. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports the crackdown appears to be still in its initial stage as Serb authorities seek to prosecute economic crime while keeping war crimes prosecutions on the back burner.

Prague, 28 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The arrests this week (26 March) of eight former senior officials from Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and his wife Mira Markovic's Party of the Yugoslav Left suggest that the arrest of Milosevic himself may not be far off.

Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic told reporters in parliament last night that the Serbian judiciary is collecting material evidence against Milosevic. In Djindjic's words, "I think it will be over very soon."

The detention and 30-day investigative custody the eight latest detainees face also indicate a new stage in the crackdown on corruption, abuse of office, and illegal enrichment that were a hallmark of the Milosevic regime's more than 10 years in power.

A Belgrade court ordered seven former officials detained for 30 days pending an investigation for "possible abuse of power and fraud." Three of them are being investigated for their roles in the purchase of a villa at far less than market value. Four others are suspected of embezzling the equivalent of half a million dollars from health-insurance funds.

An eighth man, the former deputy chief of Serbia's secret police, Major General Nikola Curcic, has been detained for 30 days on suspicion of revealing state secrets. RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau says Curcic's arrest -- coming after earlier arrests of senior members of the state security apparatus -- means the entire leadership of the Belgrade and Serbian secret police are now in detention.

Federal Interior Minister Zoran Zivkovic says investigators are only just beginning to uncover the extent of crimes committed by members of the former regime. And Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic says, "we can expect a lot of dirty laundry." He says investigators have begun moving to toward the top of criminal organizations.

The Belgrade authorities have been at pains to concentrate prosecution on economic crimes -- something very real to ordinary citizens -- rather than on responsibility for war crimes. Most Serbs, deprived for over 10 years of independent news media, still have trouble accepting responsibility for the Milosevic regime's war crimes.

Goran Vesic, an adviser to the federal interior minister, makes the point this way:

"As you see, none of the people named were arrested [this week] because of politics, but for other things -- misuse of position, sale of a house for very little money."

The authorities in Belgrade have been trying to gather evidence against Milosevic for economic crimes, postponing the inevitable issue of war crimes for a politically more stable moment.

Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic said Monday (26 March) that the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague has unofficially indicated its readiness to a one-year delay of its request for Milosevic's extradition. But tribunal officials have denied this.

Officials in Belgrade insist laws must be enacted to enable extradition to take place. But the tribunal says a legal framework exists in Yugoslavia for both arresting and extraditing all suspects to the tribunal. Moreover, they say that as a UN member, Yugoslavia is obliged to hand over war crimes suspects on its territory.

The first war crimes suspect handed over by Yugoslavia to the UN war crimes tribunal, Milomir Stakic, was due today to appear before The Hague court to face charges of genocide. Stakic is the former mayor of the northern Bosnian city of Prijedor, and is a citizen of Bosnia's Serb entity. He was handed over to the tribunal as a foreigner rather than a resident citizen by Serb police.

Batic said he had an agreement with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica that foreigners could be extradited. But Kostunica denied the allegation in a letter to the Belgrade daily "Blic."

In Washington, the Bush administration is due to decide by Saturday (31 March) whether the federal and republican leaderships in Belgrade have started to cooperate fully with The Hague court. If it determines that Belgrade is not cooperating sufficiently with the tribunal, though unlikely, it would freeze payments and block credits to Yugoslavia.

Federal Prime Minister Zoran Zizic, a Montenegrin who supported Milosevic, said last November when he accepted the office that he was taking the job to ensure that Milosevic would not be extradited to The Hague. But Zizic now has little power. Perhaps the biggest impediment to sending Milosevic to The Hague has been Kostunica himself, who has made no secret of his belief that the tribunal is a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

Kostunica said over the weekend that cooperation with The Hague must be regulated by law. He appears to perceive the tribunal as an adversary in the battle for the hearts and minds of those who will eventually write the history of the Balkans.

"When one speaks of The Hague court, this is an institution which is neither purely a court, nor purely political. It has ambitions of making history in this era and area. In making history, we will try to exercise as much influence as we can."

The chief prosecutor of The Hague tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, on a visit to the Bosnian Serb capital Banja Luka Monday (26 March), dismissed Kostunica's claim that the deportation last Friday (23 March) by Serbian police of Stakic to The Hague was an exception that needed to be remedied by new legislation.

"Oh, this is not an exception. It is absolutely not an exception. [It's the first step]."

In Sarajevo yesterday for talks with the international community's High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, Del Ponte noted that a total of 38 indictees are still at large in the states of the former Yugoslavia.

Many are living as free men. Others, like former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his former military commander, General Ratko Mladic, are in hiding. Until recently, Mladic lived in Belgrade with his bodyguards, but he has now gone underground.

Natasa Novakovic is a legal adviser to the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. She says that cooperation with The Hague tribunal is presented to the Serb public as a compulsory obligation, and notes that few Serbs speak about the tribunal's moral weight.

Novakovic describes the case of a Serb man whom she recently met. The man is from the Vukovar area of eastern Croatia, which Serb forces bombarded and "ethnically cleansed" in 1991.

"Within 10 minutes, he began boasting about what he did in the war, how many people he killed and raped, how he enthusiastically participated in ethnic cleansing of Croats. He felt no remorse for what he did. I had the feeling that he would continue doing this kind of thing [if circumstances allowed,] but he can't anymore. He's been sentenced to 20 years in Croatia and he is afraid that a secret indictment from The Hague tribunal will turn up. He said it's funny that such a monster can go around Belgrade and Serbia thanks to having a lot of money and a change of name, so no one can find him."

Novakovic says this case explains the uncertainty prevalent in Serb society, where as she puts it, you don't know who your next-door neighbor or the person sitting next to you really is.

The deputy chairman of the Serbian Helsinki Committee, Seska Stanojlovic, says that although the question of The Hague tribunal is no longer taboo in Serbia, "the whole issue has been opened up the wrong way." She says:

"It is somehow made to seem banal, and presented as a political-economic trade off. But we think that it is of fundamental significance for our own personal past, for the present and for the future, because we think it is very important that Serbia separate itself from the crimes, that it rejects [the idea of] collective responsibility of the Serbian people, that the those who committed the [crimes] be identified and punished. And I think the shortest route to achieving this leads via The Hague court."

Belgrade journalist Petar Lukovic says the media must share some of the blame. He criticizes the Serbian media for failing in the past six months since Milosevic's fall from power to make war crimes a real issue.

Lukovic says most reporters have either sought to minimize the significance of war crimes or else present those indicted by The Hague tribunal as heroes. As he puts it: "The authorities have merely continued the practices of the former regime in manipulating the media. He says that shows what he describes as "the pathological need of those in power to show that they are the masters and have the last word."