Belgrade, Yugoslavia The Yugoslav newsweekly Vreme recently ran a photograph of a piece of Serbian graffiti that read: "We are all Carla Del Ponte." A year ago, no Serb would have thought of identifying himself with Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Today, polls here show that most 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. Always the maverick, Milosevic put on a cocky, Slobo-confronts-foreigners act for his first court appearance. As if forgetting he's 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, asked if he would like to have his 51-page indictment read to him, snorted the now-famous response, "That's your problem."
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!
West courted Milosevic
For almost a decade the West dueled with Milosevic, always wanting to appear fair, always willing 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, leaders of the free world treated him as part of the solution, not part of the problem. 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 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. 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 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, 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's already lost three wars, the support of his nation, his grip on power and his freedom. Meanwhile, the West knows it must make sure to appear even more fair and politically proper than before NATO's bombing of Yugoslavia. Those airstrikes convinced even more Serbs 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 seeks Serb sympathy
Slobo is well aware of this. And so, in his court appearance, 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 his performance with not satisfaction but shame, mixed with wounded pride and even some pity.
Milosevic's arrogant remarks should not lull the prosecutors. The fact that he refused to participate in last week's proceedings doesn't mean he never will. An about-face is almost certain to follow; it is another Milosevic hallmark.
Milosevic will dispute every single thing, resist every step of the way and hire whatever help he needs. Deputy prosecutor Graham Blewitt said last week he'd like to see Milosevic defended by the "best legal defense there is in the world." It's likely his wish will come true: The prospect of rotting in a foreign jail will no doubt make Milosevic concentrate all his mental capabilities and political skill on the battle. Slobo-the-Godfather must be counting on his Belgrade mafia to help him out; 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 staff would be spread very thin. U.N. member states will contribute lawyers, but getting the best 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 one mistake has already been made: Judge Richard May's failure, following Milosevic's curt insult, to have the indictment read aloud. Now, Slobo remains officially uninformed as to why he is in The Hague.
Case will be hard to prove
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.
Milosevic's trial probably won't be a grand vindication for the West along the lines of a modern 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's unlikely to be a satisfying experience for the survivors of his madness. This consummate poker player could 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.
Anna Husarska is a senior political analyst at the International Crisis Group.