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Los Angeles Times Interview

James O'Brien

A Diplomatic Novice Becomes the Go-to Man on Yugoslavia

October 22, 2000|Robin Wright

WASHINGTON — In 1992, James C. O'Brien was a junior staffer working in the little-known Legal Advisor's office at the State Department when he read the first press reports detailing atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Although the Balkans wasn't his field and he had been at State for only three years, O'Brien was so moved by the accounts that he began asking what the United States knew about claims of genocide.

The Yale Law School graduate then started lobbying for something to be done. "Everybody said it was impossible because it was too complicated," he recalled. "But I figured we really ought to do something."

With a small group of junior staffers, O'Brien began exploring options. Their work produced the idea and the mechanism to set up what is now the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, an internationally mandated body to indict and try those responsible for all atrocities committed as Yugoslavia unraveled.

For his efforts, O'Brien, 32, was recently appointed special advisor to the president and secretary of state for democracy in the Balkans. He moved to a wood-paneled office just down the hall from Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright. Last week, he became the first U.S envoy to return to Yugoslavia since the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic, where he met new President Vojislav Kostunica.

Despite a decade of rocky relations between Belgrade and Washington, the two men took to each other, U.S. officials said afterward. "Both men are international lawyers. They speak the same kind of language," said a State Department spokesperson.

O'Brien, who has a reputation for "boundless energy" and can be tracked by the trail of empty Diet Coke cans he leaves behind, now has the daunting task of planning how U.S. diplomacy can support and stabilize Europe's most fragile new democracy.

The father of two toddlers--and owner of two beagles--O'Brien spends his limited free time reading history, most recently about the end of the Roman Republic, the Irish rebellion and the American revolution.

"It's interesting to draw the parallels," he reflected during an interview in his new office last week, "to read about the decay of emperors and then see Milosevic fall, and to read about the struggles of the American founding fathers and then see Kostunica, who can barely find someone to open his office in the morning."

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Question: After 13 years in power, Milosevic is finally gone, and Kostunica has been installed as the democratically elected president of Yugoslavia. But how much control does he really have? What do Milosevic and his supporters still control?

Answer: When I was in Belgrade, I was struck by the way people not only feel it's time to move on, but that they have moved on. From their standpoint, Milosevic is a man of the past. It's a remarkable transformation. Just six weeks ago, they thought he'd be there for years.

It's a really difficult transition. Kostunica has a very small staff. The federal presidency doesn't yet have a federal government. The ministries of [the province of] Serbia are still a little bit outside his control. But it's highly unlikely that Milosevic can mount an attack on the democratic transition. . . . His party is in disarray. Many local chapters have called on him to resign. People who were beholden to him are no longer willing to do anything that might return him to a position of prominence. There will be criminal elements--or people who know they have no place in the new regime or who were indicted by the war crimes tribunal--who know they have to leave and may be willing to do something damaging on the way out the door. So we face a real possibility of more internal unrest.

Q: Milosevic still faces indictment byRobin Wright is chief diplomatic correspondent for The Times.

the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. But Kostunica has said he opposes extradition. What's likely to happen?

A: It's interesting to watch Serbian public opinion develop. When the transition started, people were angry at what Milosevic did with the election. As people learn how he stole from them over the past decade, they're getting a lot angrier. So we've started to see calls for him to face trial at home for electoral fraud, corruption, abuse of government resources and now murder. At the same time, there are other people who have been victims. He's been indicted for crimes in Kosovo, and the Albanian victims deserve their day in court, as well. We definitely think Milosevic should be held accountable at The Hague.

It's striking that Kostunica said last weekend that he'd find a way to cooperate with the international tribunal. He knows that Yugoslavia can't provide justice or doesn't want to get into the argument that it will provide justice for the Albanians, so that's why an international process makes so much sense. It will require that Kostunica get complete control, and that public opinion develop sufficiently.

Q: What's the next big step for Kostunica?

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