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Yugoslavia: Kostunica Says Democracy, Economy Fragile

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica has asked the United States to show patience and understanding in dealing with the Balkan country. Kostunica said during his first official visit to Washington that Yugoslav democracy is fragile and its economy badly needs help.

Washington, 10 May 2001 (RFE/RL) Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica on Wednesday urged the United States not to link economic aid to Belgrade's cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal, arguing this could hurt his country's fragile democracy.

Kostunica made the plea during his official trip to Washington. It was the first such visit ever by a democratically elected leader of Yugoslavia.

The White House said President George W. Bush told Kostunica at a meeting that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and other indicted war crime suspects must be handed over to The Hague tribunal if Belgrade wants U.S. and international economic aid to continue.

Kostunica said after meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell later at the State Department that "the Yugoslav government is going to prepare a law on cooperation with The Hague Tribunal." He predicted that the Yugoslav parliament will approve the measure.

Milosevic, Kostunica's predecessor, is accused by the UN court of committing atrocities against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo before U.S.-led NATO forces intervened in 1999 and drove Serbian troops from the Yugoslav province.

Earlier, Kostunica spoke about the issue at Cato Institute, a Washington think-tank, where he signaled a harder line. He said:

"We would like you not to attach political conditions to the financial assistance, American and international, because of potential dangers of that kind of conditionality. These conditions could give comfort to the extremists and therefore they are counterproductive."

It was not clear whether the extremists Kostunica was referring to were ethnic Albanians or Serbians -- or both.

Ethnic Albanians, who represent more than 90 percent of Kosovo's population, are seeking an independent Kosovo. Most Serbs are determined to hang onto the province, now being administered by the United Nations and under the military protection of NATO-led troops. They are also against letting the international court prosecute Milosevic.

Kostunica himself seeks to retain what's left of Yugoslavia, which now is comprised of Serbia and Montenegro. He said that dismembering Yugoslavia would further destabilize the Balkans.

Last month, the U.S. said Yugoslavia was eligible for continued American economic aid following Milosevic's arrest. The certification, which was sought by the U.S. Congress, meant that Washington would turn over $50 million in assistance to Belgrade.

The certification, however, was conditional. It said unless Belgrade continues to cooperate with The Hague tribunal, Washington will not help sponsor an international conference aimed at raising money for Yugoslavia's battered economy.

The $50 million U.S. aid -- part of a $100-million overall package -- would run out by Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year. The U.S. administration would need to determine the level of assistance, if any, it intends to provide Yugoslavia in the new fiscal year.

In his speech before the Cato Institute, Kostunica asked the West not to press his government.

"We ask you to show patience and understanding concerning our reforms. Allow us the opportunity and time to solve the multitude of problems we are faced with and provide us with the initial shot of economic adrenaline that we need to consolidate our yet fragile democracy."

At the State Department, where Kostunica held a meeting with Powell, spokesman Richard Boucher hailed the visit as "a historic occasion."

Boucher told reporters at the department's briefing:

"What's important is that we establish a process of cooperation between Yugoslavia and the tribunal. There are a whole number of areas involved. One is passing the law [of extradition] and having the framework for that cooperation, which President Kostunica has said that he wants to do and he wants to do at an early date. So that's a good thing, that's a positive development."

Boucher said that Yugoslavia has an international obligation for turning Milosevic over to the court at The Hague.

(RFE/RL's K.P. Foley contributed to this report.)