Yugoslav investigators have begun preparing an indictment of former President Slobodan Milosevic on charges of abuse of power and theft of national property, according to Vladan Batic, justice minister of Serbia, Yugoslavia's main republic, and other senior government officials.
Milosevic, who lives under continuous surveillance in Belgrade by police loyal to the new government, is likely to be arrested in coming weeks, said the officials. "We're now collecting the evidence towards the indictment against Milosevic," Batic said. "It is being done by the judicial system and the aim of this government is to create conditions for their undisturbed work."
Prosecutors are avoiding the issue of war crimes, which gave the Milosevic government its particular notoriety around the globe.
They contend that the issue is politically explosive inside Yugoslavia and that Milosevic should in the meantime be brought to justice for crimes against fellow Serbs.
Officials from the United States, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, and from the European Union have recently pressed the new Yugoslav leadership to cooperate fully with the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague, which has indicted Milosevic on war crimes charges and is seeking his extradition.
U.S. officials have privately said they think that a trial of Milosevic in Belgrade on corruption charges will tarnish his reputation, and thus diminish any political outcry associated with his eventual extradition to the Hague. They said they would like to avoid a cutoff of U.S. financial aid to Yugoslavia on March 31, a deadline established by Congress for the country's cooperation with the tribunal.
The arrest of Milosevic would mark the ultimate humiliation of a man who once ruled Yugoslavia with unquestioned authority. Batic said that "as many as several hundred" officials from the former government may eventually find themselves on trial in the Serbian republic's courts.
The focus on corruption reflects the nation's impoverishment, which has forced its new leaders to embark on a tin-cup tour of Europe and the United States in the past few weeks.