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Yugoslavia: Kostunica Still Opposes Milosevic's Extradition To The Hague

In a lengthy news conference yesterday, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica insisted that the now-jailed Slobodan Milosevic must be held accountable for his crimes in Yugoslavia. Recent comments by Western officials indicate they are willing to see Miolsevic tried first in Belgrade. Yet the Yugoslav and Serbian leaderships themselves remain divided over the wisdom of extraditing Milosevic to the international war crimes tribunal at The Hague. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 4 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Now that Slobodan Milosevic is incarcerated in a 13.5-square-meter jail cell, the international community is showing a bit more patience for Belgrade's appeals to try Milosevic at home before eventually extraditing him to the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told reporters on his arrival in Belgrade today the people of Serbia are entitled to hear the full truth about Milosevic's crimes against the Serb people in court. Cook added, however, that "Milosevic is not above international law either, and the end of the legal process will not be complete until he is handed over to The Hague tribunal for the crimes he committed against other people in the Balkans."

In Athens yesterday, the European Union's chief for foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, said the EU will not put any pressure on the Yugoslav and Serb leaderships to extradite Milosevic because, he said, "they know what they have to do and they are going to do it."

But Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica remains unconvinced of the wisdom of deporting his predecessor to The Hague. Kostunica told the "New York Times" this week (in an interview conducted 2 April and published yesterday) that Yugoslavia should not extradite Milosevic to The Hague to face war crimes charges, even if the United States again threatens to withhold foreign aid.

Kostunica said Milosevic's arrest over the weekend now means that all the violations of the law and human rights committed by his regime will be made public. In his words: "There will be no hide-and-seek, everything will come out. If we speak of the need for social catharsis, then the most important is this one."

But barely 24 hours after giving that interview, Kostunica held a news conference in Belgrade where he offered a somewhat different view, saying extradition was not up to him.

"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 at the moment the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is considering. What it is considering is the political and the legal responsibility of Slobodan Milosevic to our authorities."

Kostunica tried to deflect domestic criticism that the timing of the arrest coincided with the deadline set by the U.S. Congress to prove active cooperation with the tribunal or else forfeit some $50 million in American aid. He said Yugoslavia was ready to cooperate but would not, in his words, "accept everything, especially not something that may jeopardize national and state dignity for a feast of dollars."

Kostunica went on to say that "some of our officials" were still unaware of the new relations between Yugoslavia and the international community. "They fail," he said, "to see that blackmail leads nowhere."

The remark appeared aimed at his chief rival within the ruling pro-democracy coalition DOS, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and some of his ministers.

In an interview with the Austrian daily "Kurier" published today, Djindjic promised Milosevic will be tried for war crimes in Belgrade as soon as the necessary evidence is prepared. Djindjic said: "Both the United States and Europe accept that this trial will take place in our country -- only the [Hague] tribunal does not. Yet it is a trial about ourselves, not only about Milosevic. We must see who did what."

But in an interesting twist that could give the Belgrade authorities a chance to ease their opposition to The Hague tribunal, Djindjic added: "Should the [Serbian] judges be unable to conduct the trial in the appropriate way out of fear, then we might consider whether it would not be more appropriate to move the trial to The Hague."

He said that two months of investigations had so far found no evidence that Milosevic was involved in politically motivated murders and abductions. In Djindjic's words: "The old regime did not leave any documents behind. We have to rely on witnesses, and the majority were collaborators and fear for their future."

Asked whether it is conceivable that Milosevic could be executed in Yugoslavia, Djindjic responded: "Yes, if we can prove his involvement in murders, it is conceivable."

One of the Yugoslav negotiators who persuaded Milosevic to surrender, Cedomir Jovanovic, says Milosevic was given four guarantees by Yugoslav and Serbian authorities. None of them, Jovanovic says, promised that Milosevic would not be sent eventually to The Hague. Jovanovic says the guarantees were:

"A guarantee that he would not be taken to Belgrade airport but solely to the central prison, a guarantee that his family members can visit him every day in prison, that they can use the residence they have been residing in for the past six months, and that the personal security of his family members and family property will be assured."

At his news conference in Belgrade yesterday, President Kostunica insisted that trying Milosevic in Serbia takes precedence over any extradition requests. He reiterated that leaders in other former Yugoslav republics as well as in the international community should also bear responsibility for what he called "the destruction of the [Yugoslav] state and the drastic impoverishment of the people."

"Slobodan Milosevic's accountability is enormous, above all to his own nation. He has accomplices in this huge responsibility for the suffering of the nation [here in Serbia] and in some of the former parts of Yugoslavia. These accomplices are certainly in the leaderships of the former Yugoslav [constituent] republics and in the international community."

There is little doubt that the actions of the leaders of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, impatient to gain independence, contributed to the bloodshed and suffering in the disintegrating Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Nor is the accusation that the international community was very slow to react effectively to end the fighting before it got out of hand far from the truth. What is questionable, however, is whether such remarks -- which to a degree echo the Milosevic regime's propaganda -- will win much international understanding and sympathy for Kostunica.

Kostunica could be out of a job if Montenegrins some two months from now vote in favor of withdrawing from Yugoslavia, thereby dissolving the federation which Kostunica heads. Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer, said yesterday the break-up would only lead to further chaos.

"The departure of Montenegro from Yugoslavia, or more precisely put, Montenegro's secession, would mean nothing else but the death of the well-known Helsinki principle of the inviolability of state borders. This would open up the way for [border] changes which would further destabilize an already unstable region."

But Kostunica's argument appears rather lame in light of the break-up of the Soviet Union and ex-Yugoslavia in 1991 and of Czechoslovakia in 1992. In addition, he has angered Djindjic by insisting that new Serbian elections will have to be held in the event of a split with Montenegro. Kostunica's argument is that the Serbian parliamentary elections last December were merely for a part of a state rather than for a whole sovereign state.

Yesterday as well, Serbia's president, Milan Milutinovic -- a Milosevic appointee himself indicted for war crimes by The Hague tribunal -- resigned all his posts in Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, or SPS. Milutinovic said the party was putting too much pressure on him.

As Serbian president, Milutinovic in theory has the power to amnesty Milosevic, His term in office expires next year, and Kostunica is considered likely to seek Milutinovic's post sooner rather than later. Reports from provincial strongholds of the SPS indicate large numbers of disaffected members are quitting the party and switching to Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia. All this suggests Kostunica is likely to get his way, hold early elections, replace Milutinovic and consolidate his power.