Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic arrived by helicopter early this morning at the UN war crimes tribunal prison in The Hague. If convicted, the 59-year-old former head of state faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Prague, 29 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The timing could not have been more appropriate.
June 28 is Vidovdan, or Saint Vitus Day -- one of the most significant days in the Serbian calendar. It marks the anniversary of the 1389 Ottoman Turkish defeat of Serb-led Christian forces at Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds. It also marks the day when a Bosnian Serb, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand -- the heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown -- in Sarajevo in 1914, touching off World War I.
Vidovdan was also the day in 1989 when Slobodan Milosevic made a history-changing address to more than one million enthusiastic Serbian pilgrims gathered at Kosovo Polje for the 600th anniversary of their forbearers' defeat.
"Today, six centuries later, we are again engaged in battles and stand before battles, not armed battles, although such things cannot yet be excluded. But regardless of whether they are [armed], the battles cannot be won without determination, bravery, and self-sacrifice -- without these qualities which so long ago were present on the Field of Blackbirds."
Two years later, on Saint Vitus Day 1991, Yugoslav tanks rolled into Croatia in what was to become a three-and-a-half-year failed attempt to crush Zagreb's drive for independence while trying to create a Greater Serbia.
And finally, shortly before dusk on Saint Vitus Day 2001, Serbian authorities placed Milosevic in the custody of tribunal officials in Belgrade who whisked the former Yugoslav president by helicopter to the US/SFOR airbase at Tuzla.
This occurred allegedly without the knowledge of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica or the Yugoslav general staff. From Tuzla, the U.S. military flew Milosevic to Valkenberg air base in the Netherlands. A helicopter flew him the last 10 kilometers to the tribunal's fortress prison at Scheveningen near The Hague, where he arrived some six-and-a-half hours after leaving Belgrade's central prison.
The timing was not lost on Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who said last night: "Exactly 12 years ago, on this very day, on one of the greatest Serbian holidays -- Saint Vitus Day -- Slobodan Milosevic called on our people to realize what he described as the ideals of heavenly Serbia. That brought 12 years of wars, catastrophes, and the destruction of our country." Djindjic pledged "to carry out the ideals of the down-to-earth Serbia, not only for us and our parents, but for our children."
But as appropriate as the date seemed, the timing of Milosevic's transfer yesterday had less to do with Serbia's troubled past and more with its potentially prosperous future. An international conference is being held in Brussels today at which 35 donor nations are expected to make pledges of aid totaling some $1.25 billion for next year. And Djindjic said Serbia could not risk the isolation that failing to transfer Milosevic might cause.
"The possibility that those pledges would be suspended indefinitely along with the decision on our cooperation with the Hague tribunal raises the risk of an unforeseen fiasco and the humiliation of our state, that...at the donors' conference a large number of countries would revoke their participation."
Milosevic is expected to be brought before the tribunal within the next few days to hear the charges against him of crimes against humanity in Kosovo. The charges are likely to be expanded to include crimes committed between 1991-95 in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
President Kostunica, an expert in constitutional law and a vocal opponent of delivering Milosevic to The Hague, was incensed, saying: "cooperation with the Hague tribunal was reduced to delivering suspects, without any protection of citizens or state interests, [or] even basic procedure."
"We are now facing problems that were unnecessarily and unwisely created. Tonight's extradition of the former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, cannot be considered legal and constitutional." Kostunica added: "This can be interpreted as seriously endangering the constitutional system of the country. The rule of law [cannot] be built on injustice."
Earlier yesterday, the Yugoslav Supreme Court froze a decree that the government had issued on 23 June enabling Milosevic's transfer to The Hague. The Serbian government responded by going into an emergency session and deciding to circumvent the court ruling. Djindjic pronounced the court's decision invalid and alleged that it "endangers the survival of the country." He said the Serbian government agreed to "fulfill its obligations to The Hague."
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Zarko Korac said: "For far too long, the specter of collective responsibility hung over us because of Milosevic." He added: "Milosevic, and not the Serbian nation, was the chief culprit. Now he'll have to account for his acts, and that will remove the smear from the Serb nation."
The Yugoslav military disassociated itself from the transfer. The state news agency, Tanjug, quoted unnamed officials at the Army General Staff as saying last night that the handover was up to the Serbian government and that according to the Yugoslav Constitution, the army "is not in any way connected with this."
Many Belgrade residents said they were relieved. Some said they believed Milosevic should have remained in Belgrade to face trial at home.
1st man: "It's the right thing, the right thing at the right time. He left us in a bad way and caused too much evil."
2nd man: "Now that it's all over we can live normally."
3rd man: "Bon voyage." (Good riddance.)
1st woman: "We -- our authorities, our state -- should have tried him."
4th man: "It wasn't necessary. It's a matter of honor."
5th man: "I think he should have been tried here."
6th man: "I think the transfer was correct. But I would have sent him already [last] October 5, [when he was ousted], to answer for his acts. Ten, 12 years has been enough. The nation is impoverished."
Milosevic's lawyer, Toma Fila, was outraged that he had not been informed of the transfer in time to react. Fila initially refused to comment and later told reporters that in a "normal country" the defense would be informed about the whereabouts of his client.
Another lawyer, Moma Raicevic, showed reporters what he said was a written statement signed by Kostunica, Djindjic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, and an official of the pro-democracy Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) at the time of Milosevic's arrest on 1 April, guaranteeing Milosevic would not be transferred to The Hague tribunal.
Some 200 Milosevic supporters rallied outside the central prison last night. And a crowd of some 2,000 angry Milosevic supporters gathered at Belgrade's Republic Square chanting "revolt, revolt" and "treason, treason" to denounce Djindjic and the DOS.
Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, said she was "appalled" by the transfer. The Montenegrin tabloid "Dan" quotes her as saying, "even little children know that according to the constitution the transfer and sale of our citizens is banned."
Zivadin Jovanovic, the deputy chairman of Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, or SPS, accused Kostunica and Djindjic of bearing responsibility for the handover.
Another SPS leader, Ivica Dacic, described the day as the most shameful day in Serbian history since Saint Vitus Day 1389.
"This is the day when Serbia overturned all the accusations of what has happened in the last 10 years. They want to say that we are war criminals, Milosevic too." (Crowd boos, whistles, chants "treason, treason.")
SPS has issued a statement accusing Djindjic's government of having suspended the constitution and undertaken a coup d'etat.
Serbian Radical Party or SRS leader Vojislav Seselj, who also addressed the rally, called for the formation of a government of national salvation and early elections.
The leaders of SPS and SRS have called a large demonstration for this evening (1800 Prague and local time) in front of the federal parliament building to protest Milosevic's handover.
Predrag Bulatovic, the head of DOS's Montenegrin partner in the federal government -- the pro-Milosevic Socialists People's Party (SNP) -- told a news agency (Reuters) in Podgorica last night that "this is the end of the coalition."
Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic, also a member of Montenegro's SNP, called the handover of Milosevic "unconstitutional." He says it undermines the "very foundation of the Yugoslav federation" and said he would hand in his resignation at a cabinet meeting later today.
Zizic said late last year that he was only taking the post of federal prime minister to ensure that DOS would not transfer Milosevic to The Hague.
The Montenegrin government, which is no fan of Milosevic, may use the transfer as a pretext for dissolving the Yugoslav federation. Montenegro's Deputy Prime Minister Dragisa Burzan said the handover "now opens the door for [the] peaceful process for Montenegro to become sovereign."
In Kosovo, there was no comment from Ibrahim Rugova's mainstream Democratic League of Kosovo.
The deputy chairman of Hashim Thaci's Democratic Party of Kosovo, Hajredin Kuqi, says the transfer shows that justice prevails. "The transfer of Milosevic opens the way for the transfer to the Hague tribunal of the other indictees."
Kol Berisha, the deputy chairman of Ramush Haradinaj's Democratic Alliance, likewise welcomed the news.
"It is of immense significance for Kosovars because it represents satisfaction for all those families that suffered so much under the Milosevic regime."
Stipe Mesic, Croatia's president and the last prime minister of all Yugoslavia in 1991, said he had no regrets over the news of Milosevic's transfer.
"I told him [Milosevic] in  that we would meet in court. He planned the war, and built into this plan war crimes and genocide causing harm to all, especially the Serbian nation."
In Bosnia, the international community's high representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, also welcomed the transfer. He specifically expressed appreciation of the Serbian government's difficult decision to make the transfer on the 12th anniversary of what he called Milosevic's "infamous speech in Kosovo, which many regard as the overture to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia."
Petritsch terms Milosevic "the main culprit of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina." He says Slobodan Milosevic's appearance before the war crimes tribunal is crucial for the development of the peace process in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Petritsch said he expects that others like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- Bosnian Serb leaders likewise indicted by The Hague tribunal for their role in Bosnia and Herzegovina's bloody war -- will also appear shortly before the international court.
And in Macedonia, government spokesman Milososki described Milosevic's delivery to The Hague as "good news for all democracies in the Balkans" and "bad news for all who like violence and weapons." The spokesman called Milosevic "the greatest but not the last tyrant in the Balkans," and added that he hopes The Hague tribunal will also eventually host "the leaders of the Albanian paramilitary formations, who like Milosevic threaten democracy and peace in Southeastern Europe."