Milosevic in The Hague: What it Means for Yugoslavia and the Region
Milosevic in The Hague: What it Means for Yugoslavia and the Region
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Milosevic in The Hague: What it Means for Yugoslavia and the Region

On 28 June 2001, St Vitus’s Day – an anniversary with enormous resonance in Yugoslavia – Serbian government transferred former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague.

On 28 June 2001, St Vitus’s Day – an anniversary with enormous resonance in Yugoslavia – Serbian government transferred former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic to The Hague. By this bold political move, the government demonstrated in the clearest way its will to break with the past. With the timing driven by the international donors conference scheduled for 29 June, the transfer also confirmed the effectiveness of conditioning economic assistance to Yugoslavia on concrete political progress.

This ICG report describes the background to the transfer, how it was carried out, the internal political fallout, and what it all means for the future of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the wider region.

The disintegration of the federal government the day after the transfer showed that Milosevic’s removal from the country had rocked the Yugoslav political structures to their foundations. The ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition has been traumatised by the process that led up to the transfer, and may not survive to contest the next elections.

Federal President Kostunica is trying to form a new federal government, but this may prove impossible without new federal elections – something he wishes to avoid, in part because the outcome would be impossible to foresee. It would hinge on Montenegro’s governing coalition, which boycotted the last federal elections (in September 2000) but might not do so next time, if prior agreement on reshaping the Serbia-Montenegro relationship could be reached with the DOS coalition. There are signs that Serbian Premier Djindjic and Montenegrin President Djukanovic could reach such an agreement, over the heads of the federal presidency and government.

There has been a striking growth of pro-independence sentiment among Serbs themselves – a development that has large implications for the FRY. In the minds of the Serbian government, probably the only glue keeping the Yugoslav federation (FRY) together is the fear – whether or not legally well-founded – that, if the FRY dissolves, Kosovo’s independence will inevitably follow. The need to reshape the federation has never seemed more urgent. Should the EU, the U.S., and the FRY prove unable to redefine their policies and roles in a meaningful manner, the dissolution of the “third Yugoslavia” will not be long in coming.

Despite rather muted responses in Croatia and Bosnia, there is little question that Milosevic’s transfer will have an impact among Serbia’s neighbours. International pressure for the delivery of Croatian indictees will increase sharply, and the Tribunal’s prosecutor should be expected to turn her attention to the Bosnian Muslims. The omens that Bosnian Serb indictees such as Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic will finally face justice at The Hague seem more promising than ever. These developments have the potential to improve ethnic relations and accelerate normalisation in the war-affected zones.

Sadly, the place currently most in need of such benefits – namely, Macedonia – seems the least likely to enjoy them. Macedonia was spared from inter-ethnic violence during the decade of Milosevic’s power, and his definitive removal from the scene will do nothing to alleviate the potential for spiralling conflict there.

Belgrade/Brussels, 6 July 2001

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.