Thu, May 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

The Balkans go to court

While war-crimes tribunals are an essential part of self-reflection and reconciliation, the people of the Balkans also deserve the EU's political and economic support

By Jiri Dienstbier

Serbia's long tragedy looks like it is coming to an end. The death of Slobodan Milosevic has just been followed by Montenegro's referendum on independence. Independence for Kosovo, too, is inching closer.

The wars of the Yugoslav succession have not only been a trial for the peoples of that disintegrated country; they also raised huge questions about the exercise of international justice. Do international tribunals of the sort Milosevic faced before his death promote or postpone serious self-reflection and reconciliation in damaged societies? Do they strengthen or undermine the political stability needed to rebuild wrecked communities and shattered economies?

The evidence on these questions is mixed. Indeed, the record of the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in The Hague, may be instructive in judging the credibility of the strategy of using such trials as part of the effort to end civil and other wars. In 13 years, the ICTY, with 1,200 employees, spent roughly US$1.25 billion to convict only a few dozen war criminals. Moreover, whereas members of all ethnic groups committed crimes, in its first years, the ICTY indicted and prosecuted far more Serbs than others, fueling a perception, even among opponents of Milosevic's regime, that the tribunal was political and anti-Serbian.

We may regret that Milosevic's own trial ended without a conclusion. But a conviction only of Milosevic, however justified, without parallel penalties for his Croat, Bosniak and Kosovo-Albanian counterparts would hardly have contributed to serious self-reflection within the post-Yugoslav nations.

To be sure, the arrest of General Ante Gotovina, adored by many Croats as a hero, but responsible for the brutal expulsion of a quarter-million Serbs from Croatia and north-west Bosnia -- the biggest ethnic cleansing in Europe since Word War II -- improves the ICTY's standing. But Milosevic's Croatian and Bosniak counterparts, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic, remained unindicted when they died. So, too, the main commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Ramush Haradinaj, the prime minister of Kosovo, was accused but later released from detention.

I have always been convinced that Milosevic should have been put on trial in Belgrade. After all, Milosevic's critics and political rivals such as the journalist Slavko Curuvija and Milosevic's former mentor, Ivan Stambolic, were assassinated by Serb police agents, who also tried three times to murder the opposition leader Vuk Draskovic.

There was, moreover, ample evidence of corruption among Milosevic's inner circle, including members of his immediate family.

Holding the trial in Belgrade might have served better to catalyze a sober examination of the past. The atmosphere was certainly favorable. The majority of Serbs hold Milosevic responsible for the decline of their society. Even before his fall, the opposition controlled most big Serbian cities, and in 2000 he lost the election that he called to shore up his authority. The relatively small turnout at his funeral confirmed that only a minority of Serbs considers him a national hero.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Slovenia, the democratic transformation in the post-Yugoslav region remains uneasy. Wars, ethnic cleansing, embargoes and sanctions created not only psychological traumas, but also black markets, smuggling, large-scale corruption and de facto rule by criminal syndicates. The bombing of Serbia by NATO in 1999 heavily damaged its economy, with serious consequences for neighboring countries.

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