Resolving problems in Balkans gets harder

Posted in United States | 13-Mar-06 | Author: Judy Dempsey and Nicholas Wood| Source: International Herald Tribune

An elderly supporter of Slobodan Milosevic signs a book of condolences at the Socialist Party headquarters in Belgrade.
BELGRADE The death of Slobodan Milosevic, who was found lifeless on his bed in a Hague jail on Saturday morning just as his long war crimes trial was nearing an end, poses a dilemma for Europe and the United States, which both hoped to solve outstanding problems in the Balkans this year but could face new complexities as a result of Milosevic's passing.

The United States has been pushing hard to make this the year of settlement of the Kosovo problem, while the European Union has given the Serbian government until April to hand over Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader during the 1992-95 war, who is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes for the wartime siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys around Srebrenica in July 1995.

Milosevic's death throws doubt on the ability of the Serbian government to move ahead of nationalist sentiments and make any compromises on either Kosovo or handing over Mladic or other indicted war crimes suspects to a United Nations tribunal in The Hague. In the past two weeks, the tribunal has proved unable to prevent either Milosevic's death or the suicide of a convicted war criminal, Milan Babic, wartime leader of Croatia's Serbs.

Milosevic, the only former head of state ever to face war crimes charges, was just weeks away from wrapping up his own defense in a war crimes trial that had dragged on for more than four years, examining the deeds that earned him the epithet "Butcher of the Balkans" during the wars of the 1990s over Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. If there proves to be anything suspicious about his death from a heart attack, it would risk enhancing his bid to be seen as a martyr for the Serbian cause.

Misha Glenny, a historian and expert on the Balkans, said: "Serbia is now coming under tremendous pressure. It is going to go through a very difficult time because it is facing big decisions which will test its nerve."

In Belgrade on Sunday, the response from most Serbs to the death was publicly largely mute. But the death stirred enormous interest both at home and among the large population of Serbian exiles who had left the country during the past 15 years of warfare and economic ruin.

Several Serbian newspapers fueled speculation about Milosevic's death. Three newspapers printed headlines asserting that he had been murdered. "The Hague Killed Milosevic," one said. Another said he had been killed by his medical treatment.

There were few public displays of grief for Milosevic - indeed, the government on Sunday commemorated the third anniversary of the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, a prime minister who was his longtime opponent.

The most immediate controversy concerned whether Milosevic should be buried at home, in Serbia and Montenegro, or in Moscow, where his wife, Mirjana Markovic, has been living. Any funeral in Belgrade would most likely serve as a rallying point for Milosevic supporters and nationalists, and it would also bring his family back to Belgrade. Milosevic might more easily be cast as a martyr, and any appearance by Markovic would pose a fresh dilemma for the Serbian government, since there is an international warrant for her arrest for abuse of power in 1990s.

The Socialist Party that Milosevic headed during his 13 destructive years as Serbian leader has asked the government to waive all charges against the family and requested that he be buried in a corner of Belgrade's main cemetery known as the "Alley of the Great" and reserved for Serbian national figures.

"It's the way he's buried and where he's buried, that is the issue," said Zoran Korac, a former deputy prime minister and opposition politician during Milosevic's rule. "You cannot prevent a man from being buried in his own country."

Korac added, however, that he "would be dead set against" any form of recognition of Milosevic as leader.

Milosevic fell from popular grace after his ouster in 2000, when his popularity ratings dropped to no higher than 10 percent, according to Strategic Marketing Research, a polling company that monitors the popularity ratings of Serbian politicians. But the sight of Milosevic in televised proceedings single- handedly taking on the Hague tribunal, who many Serbs believe is biased against them, increased those ratings to 20 percent to 23 percent - "a very high rating for a Serbian politician," said the polling company's chief executive, Srdjan Bogosavljevic.

Some Serbs have apparently forgotten the hyperinflation, economic and diplomatic isolation associated with Milosevic's rule. "My salary is less now than it was then," said Zoran Mihajlovic, 47, a hotel manager in the town of Vranje, in southern Serbia.

If there were problems during Milosevic's time, added Mihajlovic, who emphasized that he did not support the Socialists, "I'm sure he didn't know about 60 percent of all the things happening in Serbia."

But some analysts said the death of Milosevic could be the beginning of the end of a burden that was weighing down Serbia even after Milosevic was sent to the Hague tribunal in 2001.

"Slowly, the long shadow of Milosevic might now start fading," said Danijel Pantic, director of the European Movement, an independent research group in Belgrade. "Even from his prison cell, he influenced the Socialist Party of Serbia of which he was leader. Now there is a chance of a younger generation to emerge which could even stabilize the government."

The first big test for the Serbian president, Boris Tadic, and his prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, is whether they can still persuade Mladic and the Bosnian Serbs' wartime political leader, Radovan Karadzic, to surrender to the Hague tribunal. Both have been on the run for over 10 years; security officials confirmed last month that negotiations were going on with Mladic over his surrender.

But Olli Rehn, enlargement commissioner for the European Union, has said that talks on an association with Serbia will be cut off on April 5 if Belgrade has not handed over Mladic or Karadzic by then.

Some EU countries prefer to keep the door open to give Serbian reformers some hope of reaching their long-held goal of bringing the country closer to the rest of Europe. But the United States and Carla Del Ponte, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, are insisting that the European Union should not start any formal talks for a "stabilization and association agreement," a preliminary step to eventual membership, until the two men have been handed over.

Judy Dempsey reported from Berlin and Nicholas Wood from Belgrade.