Leading Serbia from the cells

Even in The Hague, Milosevic is a force to be reckoned with, explains

Against the seaside backdrop that forms the view from Slobodan Milosevic’s cell in the Scheveningen prison, the former President of Serbia prepares his defence against the 66 crimes against humanity he is charged with committing throughout the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and during NATO’s action in Kosovo.

After more than two years of deliberation and 300 witnesses, the prosecution led by Carla Del Ponte rested their case two weeks ago.

The uncompromising confidence of Del Ponte has been met with scepticism by some observers. Many believe that without written documents that could prove Milosevic’s complicity in genocide in Bosnia – including the Srebenica massacre in July 1995 – a conviction for the gravest charges against the former President may not be carried by the Court. This scepticism culminated in a motion by a group of independent lawyers appointed to oversee the Court’s treatment of Milosevic calling for these charges to be dropped. Doubt has cast its shadow further across the Hague’s benches with the retirement of British judge Richard May due to undisclosed health problems, leading to the potential of further delay to a case that has already seen a dozen adjournments due to the health of Milosevic. His retirement means that, ironically, the court is now dependent on the defendant’s consent for the appointment of a new judge, whereas Milosevic has consistently denied its legitimacy.

Meanwhile inconclusive elections in Serbia have put his opponents at his mercy. The creaking coalition of liberals and moderate nationalists led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica requires the support of the party that Milosevic still leads from the Hague, the Socialist Party of Serbia. This vulnerable position has led to a stronger shade of rhetoric from Belgrade, with Kostunica declaring on the formation of his government, “We will do everything to make cooperation with the Hague go two ways, to speed up war crimes trials before domestic courts and to seek help for the defence of those indicted”.

Kostunica has since hinted at refusing to extradite any further Serbs to the Court and suggesting a future division of Kosovo along ethnic lines. Whilst these new developments have alarmed the West, Kostunica has also made the unprecedented move of bringing to domestic trial six members of Serb paramilitary groups accused of killing 192 prisoners from the Croatian border town of Vukovar in November 1991.

Kostunica’s balancing act between a domestic audience increasingly attracted by the allures of ultranationalism and an international community frustrated with a lack of progress in the war crimes tribunal leaves reformism’s grip in doubt.

However, the US policy has failed to reflect this. They recently suggested a cut in aid to Belgrade if further extraditions are prevented. This comes at a time when Serbs are keen to redress their own wounds from the wars of the 1990s.

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