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Yugoslav Politics Hinder Transfer of U.N. Indictees

Balkans: Belgrade stalls and risks losing millions in U.S. aid because of the public's opposition to the war crimes tribunal.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The increasingly troubled face of Yugoslavia came into full view this week as a crucial deadline for detaining war crimes suspects passed with no action from government leaders, who risk losing millions of dollars in U.S. aid.

Yugoslav officials, who had suggested that the hand-over would come just a day or two after the March 31 deadline, later in the week again put off action, saying that they first wanted to pass a law regulating transfer of war crimes suspects to an international tribunal in The Hague.

"Simply, I wouldn't like the extraditions to take place before the law is passed, and I want to be an optimist that a law will be passed," Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica said.

More than $40 million in U.S. aid was frozen Monday, but Secretary of State Colin L. Powell left the door open for a continuation of funding as soon as Yugoslavia complies with the extradition requirements.

"We will be very disappointed, however, if the transfers do not occur in the next day or two," a Western diplomat said.

Although no one in this Balkan nation doubts that more indicted war crimes suspects eventually will be transferred to the tribunal, the delays point to the country's deeper problems in facing its violent past.

Analysts, and government officials in Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, cite increasing frustration that U.S. policy focuses so much on compliance with the Hague tribunal. The government, they say, has taken widely acclaimed steps to remake its ravaged and corrupt economy.

"What I would hope is that the United States will notice the enormous progress made in the last 14 months since we came to power," said Serbian Finance Minister Bozidar Djelic, a Western-trained businessman who is widely viewed as one of the most progressive members of the new government.

"I can see the point in America having a values-based foreign policy, and I don't want to condone the countries who might be performing well economically but are not espousing those values . . . but America has to understand we too have public opinion to work with, we too have people who are just waiting for this reformist government to be put in a light that would make people think we are hopeless Western puppets," Djelic said.

A key problem for government leaders is that Serbs believe that the Hague tribunal is attempting to tar them with the blame for all of the war crimes committed as the former Yugoslav federation crumbled in the 1990s.

Although a number of Croats and some Bosnian Muslims have been indicted, the majority of those facing war crimes charges are Serbs.

Few Serbs believe that the court's focus on charging high-level officials such as former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic is intended to avoid blaming the entire society.

"People are aware that the extraditions are something that have to be done, but it is not pleasant," said Ljiljana Bacevic, director of the Center for Political Studies and Public Opinion Research, a local think tank and polling organization.

Most repugnant to many Serbs is the link between the hand-over of suspected war criminals and financial aid, Bacevic said. "Nobody is happy with these conditions . . . with the idea that we have to sell somebody. It's humiliating."

As distrust has grown in recent months, the transfer of war crimes suspects has become a major political issue tearing the fragile ruling coalition. With the Serbian presidential election due in the fall, political leaders are scrambling to use the tribunal issue to gain an edge.

"Whoever is seen as responsible for the transfer of war crimes suspects will be regarded as doing a dirty job and will suffer in the next elections," said Bratislav Grubacic, a political analyst in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital.

The two key players are Kostunica, a nationalist whose constituency consists primarily of poorer, older and more rural voters, and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who represents the reformist political wing but has never won broad popular support.

Kostunica has distanced himself from the Hague tribunal. He said on Serbian state television in late March that it "turns my stomach."

Djindjic, who masterminded the transfer of Milosevic to The Hague last summer, has been trying to force Kostunica to take some of the responsibility this time.

The volatility of the issue makes it that much more difficult for government officials to apprehend and transfer more-popular figures from the Milosevic era such as Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, who has been charged with genocide for his role in Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the slaughter of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys after the surrender of the eastern town of Srebrenica in July 1995. Reports have suggested that Mladic has spent much of his time in Serbia since Bosnia's 1992-95 war.

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