Politics, Policy, and Global Relations

Serbia: Once Again, Life Under Threat

Former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, shown here on Oct. 13, 2000, surrendered to The Hague on May 2, 2002 (Photo: AFP).  

The U.S. Congress’ March 31 deadline for Yugoslavia to extradite indicted Serbians to the Hague war-crimes tribunal passed without compliance—but with domestic turmoil over the tens of millions of U.S. aid dollars the country stands to lose if it fails to comply.

On April 11, after weeks of contentious debate, the Yugoslav Parliament passed a law supporting cooperation with the international war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, ensuring that the government will turn over those individuals indicted by the tribunal for crimes against humanity in 1999. Within hours of the vote, one of the suspects, former Serbian Interior Minister Vlajko Stojiljkovic, shot himself in the head on the steps of Parliament. He died two days later. And on April 14, another prime suspect, former Yugoslav army commander Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, announced he will surrender to the tribunal. —WPR

In recent days, we have been living under threat and in a tension that can only be compared with the situation on the eve of NATO aggression in March 1999. Either we will be exposed to new sanctions due to our insufficient cooperation with the international tribunal for war crimes [at The Hague], or we will alleviate our suffering somewhat if Washington gives us a little bit more time to make up the examination. There is no third solution.

Our leadership is divided over differing estimates of the threat, although it had already been divided because of many other things. (Serbian Prime Minister Zoran) Djindjic’s faction estimates that a D-Day is coming and that a dangerous outside wall of sanctions, return to isolation, and a retreat from reform will come next if the U.S. Congress finds that we have not met all the demands related to our cooperation with the Hague tribunal. (Yugoslav President Vojislav) Kostunica’s faction, however, believes that there is no reason for panic and that Washington has set our cooperation with The Hague as a political issue. It believes that the U.S. Congress would be satisfied with the Bush administration’s evaluation that we have done “enough” under dramatic circumstances if [U.S. Secretary of State] Colin Powell said so on Capitol Hill. He has postponed his decision indefinitely, extending our agony.

Kostunica’s demand to pass a law on cooperation with the Hague tribunal was apparently infeasible during the past year and a half. Kostunica himself has finally admitted that such a bill is “the only way for all of us to share the responsibility” [for extradition of accused war criminals to the tribunal]. What he means is that he does not want to bear the burden of responsibility as the chief of state. Djindjic, who took responsibility for [former President Slobodan] Milosevic’s extradition [to The Hague], has obviously concluded that he took enough of the historical burden, so he does not now need to do somebody else’s dirty work. Therefore the issue of cooperation with the tribunal, the issue of extradition of those indicted for war crimes, has been thrown from one hand to another like a hot potato. In addition, each institution or politician in the chain of common responsibility believes that the others do not do enough to finish this foolish game with the big powers.

Given such a predicament within the ruling establishment, division in the society is greater still. Some people believe that they have suffered enough humiliation and that the “trade” of former Serb leaders for a handful of dollars has so far brought more shame than benefits to the nation. We have become accustomed to sanctions, and they won’t bomb us again. Others find that Kostunica’s legalistic interpretations have brought us to a masochistic stance since we have no other option than to bow to the unavoidable. So we are suffering both humiliation and masochism.

In this collective madness, some people dream that the extraditions would enable us to “improve our rating” in the world and rid us of the stigma of being outlaws with which we have found ourselves once again. Others do not want cooperation with The Hague at the price of further loss of national dignity.

The two perspectives appear to have emerged from some virtual reality, not from real, cruel everyday life. There is no accomplishment that could suddenly improve our standing [in the world] after our lengthy excommunication. And justice is rarely attained unless the powerful nations want it. We have no strength anymore for additional senseless defiance. We can re-enter the world only gradually, by gaining the confidence of the big powers, first through carrying out international obligations that we have inherited. Wasn’t it Milosevic himself who signed the obligation on behalf of all of us to cooperate with The Hague?

The Hague tribunal indeed is our severe injury and a matter of national honor and conscience. But it is also a matter of honor for the most powerful force in the world [the United States]. When they face us with ultimata, oppressors do not necessarily think of us, but of the supremacy of their power.

The dispute on cooperation with the Hague tribunal has split our nation and ruling structure, paralyzed political life, fettered virtually every foreign policy initiative, and distracted us from the dangerous situation in which non-Serbs are maliciously rewriting our history in the [Hague] courtroom. Therefore it is necessary to do what has to be done to prevent further paralysis of our political and economic life. We have no alternative. Everybody in this conflict admits that there has been no deeper crisis since the establishment of democratic rule [in October 2000, after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime].