Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Serbs seem ready to go on defying Hague tribunal. - Reuters

Most Serbs oppose handing three generals over to The Hague to face Kosovo war crimes charges, even if the country continues to pay a price internationally for its defiance of the United Nations tribunal.

An opinion poll published the day after tribunal chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte slammed Serbia at the United Nations showed the majority believes the officers should not be arrested and extradited, as she has repeatedly demanded.

Del Ponte's criticism was fully expected and more or less shrugged off in advance. She has criticized Serbia constantly since Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in March 2003 and cooperation with the tribunal fell off dramatically.

Her latest blast appeared to have only minor impact, suggesting Serbs may have concluded that the U.N. court has few teeth left. It is already handling a raft of ex-Yugoslav trials, including that of former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

"I don't think that anything is going to change until the government arrests someone, and I do not believe they are going to make any arrests," said Jovan Simic, an advisor to Serbian President Boris Tadic, leader of the main opposition party. "The Serbian government is not taken seriously by anyone in the international community," he said, predicting that Serbs would continue "queuing in long lines for western visas".

But even before Del Ponte called Belgrade "the single most important obstacle" to the work of the tribunal, Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic said the economy would not suffer.

"As an economist, I am not worried," Dinkic said. "The Americans produce most of the negative reports about our cooperation with The Hague but at the same time, they remain Number One investors in Serbia and continue to invest."


The poll in daily Politika showed 24 percent of Serbs thought the generals were not guilty and should not go to The Hague at all, while another 25 percent said they should not be arrested and should only go to the U.N. court voluntarily.

Army generals Nebojsa Pavkovic and Vladimir Lazarevic and police general Sreten Lukic - indicted for alleged war crimes in Kosovo in 1999 - live openly in Serbia. Only a third of those polled thought the government should arrest them.

As for top fugitive General Ratko Mladic, del Ponte accuses Belgrade of harbouring the former Bosnian Serb commander and Belgrade regularly denies any evidence he is even in Serbia.

Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has said that extraditing such men, seen by many as national heroes, could threaten the stability of the country. President Tadic and Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic say that is an empty pretext for his inaction.

Kostunica's minority coalition depends for survival on the votes of Milosevic's Socialist Party, who could walk out should he risk ordering any extradition. So Kostunica avoids open defiance of the U.N. tribunal and says exhortation to voluntary surrender is as far as he will go.

The poll suggests he may have the majority on his side.

Serbia weathered a decade of sanctions and exclusion in the 1990s and was bombed by NATO for three months in 1999. However poor it looks, things are better now than four years ago.

The penalty of losing foreign aid because of defiance of The Hague is not new. The inducement of joining the European Union by 2014 may be just too distant to matter in daily life.

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