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Serbia and Montenegro: Belgrade Passes Test, But Difficulties Remain In Relations With Washington

Serbia and Montenegro passed an important test in relations with Washington this week. The U.S. State Department said Belgrade had shown adequate cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal to unblock $110 million in financial aid. The step is the latest sign of improving ties, but Belgrade still faces difficult issues -- including the decision whether to agree to a U.S. request to grant American citizens immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

Prague, 19 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The State Department decision to unblock $110 million in financial aid followed the arrest on 13 June of Veselin Sljivancanin, a key suspect in the Vukovar massacre of more than 200 Croatian civilians during the Serbo-Croatian war in 1991.

Hours before the U.S. decision was announced on 16 June, nationalists celebrating Serbia and Montenegro's victory over Croatia in a water-polo match went on a rampage in several Serbian cities.

In Belgrade, some 2,000 nationalists stormed the Croatian embassy, tearing down the Croatian flag and replacing it with the Serbian tricolor. In the northern city of Novi Sad, Serbian nationalists smashed shop windows in the city center, scrawling Sljivancanin's name below slogans like "This is for Vukovar."

Croatian fans attending the water polo match in Kranj, Slovenia, staged a riot of their own, reportedly shouting anti-Serb slogans in the stadium following the game.

The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted Sljivancanin in 1995. The former Yugoslav army officer -- considered a national hero by his supporters -- had been in hiding for several years.

His arrest, coming just three days before the U.S. decision was due, was seen by some as more than mere coincidence.

But Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic denied the arrest was tied to the aid deadline, insisting that authorities will take action whenever it is, in his words, "technically" possible.

"[We have acted) in a way that The Hague tribunal and the international community and Serbia are satisfied with," Zivkovic said. "Everything that has happened in the last few months or since 5 October 2000 [when former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was ousted] has been done not only because of pressure from the international community, but more importantly [because of] the orientation of the democratic authorities in Serbia. We can only compensate for the fact that we are 10 or 60 years behind if we do things seriously."

Serbian officials condemned the violence, which they said was politically orchestrated hooliganism. Boris Tadic, Serbia and Montenegro's defense minister, said those involved in the riots showed a "tragic" lack of restraint and good reasoning.

"It is tragic that the provocation by some Croatian spectators was taken up by fans in Novi Sad and Belgrade," Tadic said. "The response to racism, chauvinism, and rampages on the part of the Croatian fans should not be tearing down the Croatian flag and emblem. This is absolutely unacceptable and it is tragic that the citizens responsible showed a lack of the most elementary restraint, good reasoning, and understanding of the situation."

Washington on 16 June made it clear that the release of the financial aid does not mean Serbia has met all its obligations to the ICTY. Several key indictees remain at large -- most notably Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Until they are in The Hague, Serbia is likely to come under regular pressure from the United States.

Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic acknowledged good ties with Washington will hinge on continuing cooperation on war crimes prosecution.

"Whether next year, when the budget is approved in the U.S. Congress, some congressmen will request to pass legislation similar to the one [that existed] this year and last year [asking for certification of cooperation with the ICTY] -- that I do not know," Svilanovic said.

Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic said Serbian forces will arrest Mladic -- but added his ministry had no information that Mladic was in Serbia.

Serbian authorities say Belgrade hopes the cooperation with The Hague tribunal will be completed by this year's end -- and that future cases will be prosecuted in local courts.

Radozlav Stojanovic, a professor of international law, sees further normalization of ties. But recalling recent strains with the United States over illegal arms deals involving Serbian companies, he cautions: "If nothing like [another illegal arms deal] happens, we can expect further improvement in relations with the U.S. But there is also the problem of the demand -- I would not call it a request, but a demand -- from the U.S. that [Serbia and Montenegro] sign a bilateral agreement under which we would agree that in our country American citizens be given immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court."

In making that decision, Belgrade -- like other Balkan countries -- will have to make a choice of allegiance between the United States and the EU, which is strongly opposed to the exemption. Serbia and Montenegro is eager to join the EU as soon as possible and hopes for a positive signal from the EU summit on 21 June.

The recent violence further complicates Belgrade's predicament by suggesting that some may be angered if Belgrade, while continuing to send indictees to the ICTY, agrees to exempt U.S. citizens from a similar process.