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Justice on Trial in Yugoslavia ; March 31 Deadline Looms for Belgrade to Begin Cooperating with Hague War- Crimes Tribunal

Article excerpt

When a popular uprising toppled former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last October, nobody was happier than the chief prosecutor at the international war-crimes tribunal, Carla del Ponte.

The new reformist rulers in Belgrade - anxious, she hoped for good relations with Washington and Europe - would surely hand their old enemy over to the United Nations court in The Hague, where he has been indicted for alleged atrocities in Kosovo.

Four months later, Ms. del Ponte is still waiting. And as the Yugoslav government plays for time, the signs are that she will have to wait quite a bit longer to bring the West's bete noire to the dock.

Mr. Milosevic is living under surveillance, but not under arrest, in Belgrade. He is lucky that his successor, President Vojislav Kostunica, is mistrustful of the tribunal, sharing the view of many Yugoslavs that it is an anti-Serb tool of the West. Kostunica also apparently fears that handing Milosevic over to the tribunal would make the former strongman a popular martyr.

But unless Belgrade starts cooperating with the Hague tribunal by March 31, Washington has threatened to cut off a $100 million aid package. More critically, the United States has vowed to block any help from multilateral lenders such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which Yugoslavia urgently needs to refinance its $12 billion foreign debt.

The European Union is also applying pressure. Brussels is making a $223 million economic aid package this year conditional on cooperation with the UN tribunal.

At the same time, no Western leader wants to be too hard on the reformist Mr. Kostunica. They would prefer to encourage him to join their ranks rather than isolate him - which gives him room to maneuver.

Everything hinges on what Western capitals choose to regard as a satisfactory level of cooperation with the tribunal. "What that means exactly, the administration has yet to define, but there are no specific demands," US Ambassador to Belgrade William Montgomery told the Belgrade daily 'Blic' recently.

Yugoslav officials say they are ready to make some gestures, but that they will make choices. "Cooperation with the tribunal does not mean automatically complying with the court's every demand," Yugoslav Prime Minister Zoran Zizic told reporters last week.

Ms. del Ponte herself this week showed signs of flexibility. After a day of meetings with EU officials in Brussels Monday, she said "it is not a question of demanding that Serbia (the dominant Yugoslav republic) hand over Milosevic to the tribunal tomorrow." But she did insist on a "concrete sign of their willingness to cooperate" without delay.

Kostunica, who received del Ponte only reluctantly and very coldly during her recent visit to Belgrade, has called cooperation with her court "a process." European Commission President Romano Prodi echoed that approach Monday, saying "we urge the young democracy to cooperate with the tribunal. This must be done in a progressive way."

The Yugoslav government's key argument in refusing to hand Milosevic over is that its Constitution forbids extradition of Yugoslav citizens, and that a new law would be needed to authorize cooperation with the war-crimes tribunal. …