He's Never Played Fair. He Wont Start Now.
He's Never Played Fair. He Wont Start Now.
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

He's Never Played Fair. He Wont Start Now.

In the current issue of the Yugoslav newsweekly Vreme is a photograph of an anonymous piece of graffiti in Serbian. It reads: "We are all Carla Del Ponte."

A year ago no Serb would have thought of identifying himself with Del Ponte, who is the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Today, opinion polls here show that the majority of Serbs recognize the jurisdiction of The Hague tribunal and support the extradition of their former president.

But one particular Serb is still denying the court's legality: the ex-president himself, Slobodan Milosevic -- lately referred to here as "prisoner number 39."Slobo is a latecomer to The Hague: Thirty-eight other alleged war criminals -- Serbs, Croats and Bosnians -- are already held by the tribunal, recreating on Dutch soil the ethnic mosaic of the rump Yugoslavia, only in different proportions. Always the maverick, Milosevic put on a cocky Slobo-confronts-foreigners act for his first appearance in court; and, as if forgetting that he is no longer in control of anything, not even the microphone, he challenged the tribunal's credentials, declined to be represented by counsel, refused to enter a plea and, when asked if he would like to have his 51-page indictment read to him, snorted the now-famous response, "That's your problem."

It all looks so very familiar; only the setting is different. What we can expect to see in the courtroom is another episode of the poker game that the outside world played with Milosevic, war after war, during the centrifugal disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Butcher of the Balkans vs. the international community! You've seen it on the battlefield -- don't miss the legal sequel!

For almost a decade the West dueled with Milosevic, always wanting to appear fair, always willing to take his word at face value, to give him the benefit of the doubt, even when there was no doubt about his guilt. After the flattening of Vukovar, after the marketplace carnage in Sarajevo, after the mass murder in Srebrenica -- even then, the leaders of the free world treated him as part of the solution and not part of the problem. Instead of snatching him there and then, the West courted him to obtain his -- totally irrelevant, as it turned out -- signature on the 1995 Dayton peace agreement that came somewhere between the second and the third Balkan conflict.

The West -- be it NATO, the United Nations or Washington alone -- faced other problems mustering any tough line against Slobo: The allies had to coordinate policy among themselves as well as overcome Chinese and Russian stalling moves in the U.N. Security Council. And, especially for the United States, there was always the issue of "putting our GIs in harm's way," which prevented an intervention with ground forces.

Milosevic had no such problems: During the wars he consulted only with his wife, Mira Markovic, a woman who was often and not without reason compared to Lady Macbeth. His rivals, opponents and even his former mentor were killed by unknown perpetrators or disappeared in murky circumstances. And yellow ribbons did not spring up after Serbian soldiers, policemen or paramilitaries died in the wars he engineered.

Neither was fairness a concern in Milosevic's contacts with the West. He seemed to have a dirty trick for every occasion -- lying to heads of state, betraying the negotiators, denying reality, manipulating international organizations and diplomats through accreditations and visas, jamming foreign radio and television broadcasts. As his wars raged, he received envoy after impotent envoy -- always on the same sofa, you saw it in every TV shot -- practically fluttering his eyelashes with an expression that seemed to say, "Who, me? Guilty?"

Now, in court, the positions of both sides are the same, only more so. Slobo has even less reason for scruples or fair play: He has already lost three wars, the support of his nation, his grip on power, his residence in Yugoslavia and his freedom. Meanwhile, the West knows it must make sure to appear even more fair, and even more politically proper than before NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. Those airstrikes convinced even more Serbs than before that an unjust world is out to get them, that they are the victims of a global conspiracy. Now some may argue that the enemy has simply moved from the warplanes of NATO to the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.

Slobo is well aware of this. And so, in his court appearance Tuesday, it was the audience back home he was addressing when he switched from English to Serb and tried -- before being cut off -- to play on old Serbian grudges. He may have scored some points; even Belgraders who were glad to see him go watched their former president's performance in court not with satisfaction but with shame mixed with wounded pride and even some pity.

Milosevic's sulky face and his arrogant remarks should not lull the prosecutors. The fact that he refused to participate in the proceedings last week does not mean he won't in the future. An about-face is almost certain to follow; it is another Milosevic hallmark. Remember how, back in 1998, Milosevic crowed that he would never allow outsiders to monitor the Kosovo situation? And then signed, only a few months later, the agreement for a "Verification Mission," which brought orange vehicles full of foreigners to patrol the province.

"I consider this tribunal false tribunal" ought to be seen not as a sign that Milosevic will not fight back, but rather that he will dispute every single thing, resist every step of the way -- and hire whatever help he needs. Deputy prosecutor Graham Blewitt said last week that he would like to see Milosevic defended by the "best legal defense there is in the world." He is likely to see his wish come true, when Slobo finally decides to recognize the jurisdiction of The Hague.

The prospect of rotting in a foreign jail will no doubt make Milosevic concentrate all his mental capabilities and political skill on waging his last battle with the outside world. Subterfuge and chutzpah may not be enough, though. Good lawyers are expensive lawyers. Slobo-the-Godfather must be counting on his Belgrade mafia to help him out or at least to access the "savings" that he amassed during a decade as leader of a corrupt state. These financial resources plus the inevitable juicy book contracts could attract a very strong and focused defense team.

In contrast, prosecutor Del Ponte announced that she may enlarge the indictment to include crimes of genocide as well as crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia. This, according to her deputy Blewitt, would mean that there would have to be three prosecution teams instead of one and the staff would be spread very thin. U.N. member states will of course contribute lawyers, but getting the best of them may take time and effort.

Milosevic's eventual team of lawyers will have ample opportunities to dispute absolutely everything -- and they may start with his detention. Indeed, an American defense lawyer familiar with the case and with many years' experience in the Balkans told me that one mistake has already been made -- Judge Richard May's failure, following Milosevic's curt insult, to have the indictment read aloud. As it stands now, Slobo remains officially uninformed as to why he is in The Hague.

With so much incriminating evidence coming from military intelligence sources who will be reluctant to submit to cross examination, and with Slobo having been careful to cover his tracks, it may be difficult to prove in every instance the chain of command, as many legal commentators have already pointed out.

And given the tribunal's need to convince the whole world, and especially the Serbian people, that Milosevic is getting unimpeachably fair treatment, if it leans in any direction, it will do so in the defendant's favor.

For all these reasons, Milosevic's trial will probably not be a grand vindication for the West along the lines of a modern-era Nuremberg. Rather it will be a line by line, item by item challenge and rebuttal of a ghastly list of atrocities, many of them not admitted for procedural reasons. Even if Milosevic is convicted, it is not likely to be a wholly satisfying experience for the survivors of his madness. There is the possibility that this consummate poker player will manage to be acquitted on one or several counts. He would thus earn a nod of approval from such bloody former dictators as Chile's Augusto Pinochet, and would inspire hope among such bloody current dictators as Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

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