Yugoslavia stands to lose $40 million in US aid if by March 31 it doesn’t boost cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica must weigh issues of sovereignty and national interest
March 31 is a key date in Yugoslavia’s post-Milosevic era – the date United States diplomats have marked it as a deadline for the government in Belgrade to start fuller cooperation with the Hague court of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Last time a deadline came, Belgrade just passed the test by arresting the former president and indicted war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in a late-night raid. He was later extradited to the Hague in what proponents of international justice called a great achievement and what critics branded a case of crude bribery.
In response to Milosevic’s arrest and extradition, the US forwarded a generous aid package to Belgrade. Now the same could happen with the "smaller fish" still under indictment by prosecutors at the Hague.
This week, as the US deadline nears, could prove decisive for the current government under Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
But it comes at a difficult moment, when the two leaders find themselves pitted against each other in a complicated spying row that involved a US diplomat and top Yugoslav officials including the army chief of staff.
A path runs by empty graves in an ethnic Albanian village in Kosovo, where locals accuse Yugoslav forces of stealing the bodies as evidence before retreating in 1999.
Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic sought to assure Western leaders that a policy change to the tribunal’s favour is in the works, and that any such change is consistent with previous Yugoslav reforms.
"I will not be able to say what will happen on March 31, but I am sure there will be more cooperation, no matter whether it will happen the day before or a month after the 31st," Svilanovic said, the news agency Reuters reported.
"We are... getting ready to improve our cooperation with the ICTY because it is one of the cornerstones for a reconciliation process in our region and in our country," he said.
The US response has been equally vague, referring repeatedly to "democratic criteria" which the government in Belgrade must fulfil.
Yet Tuesday, after Yugoslavia transferred 152 Kosovo Albanian prisoners into the custody of the UN mission in Kosovo, the US heaped on the praise: "This is an important step forward in the establishment of the rule of law in the region," said Richard Bouchert, the US State Department spokesman.
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Yet Serbia remains sceptical of the ICTY’s work.
Set up as a political tribunal, many in both Yugoslavia and in Western countries doubted it would actually ever be set in motion. But the extradition and ongoing trial of Milosevic has raised the stakes.
Slobodan Milosevic before the Hague tribunal
It has also raised tempers in Belgrade, even among Milosevic’s staunches political foes.
Even Svilanovic, foreign minister in the government that toppled the Milosevic regime in a bitterly contested election, has rained criticism down on the ICTY, despite the current diplomatic balancing act playing out with the United States.
"I think the whole case has started upside down," Svilanovic said of the Milosevic trial, Reuters reported. He said prosecutors have concentrated too much on historical and political analysis and not enough on specific crimes.