WASHINGTON -- When Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was deposed last year, Congress quickly approved a $100 million aid package but added a significant qualifier: no aid after March 31 unless Belgrade cooperated with the U.N. war crimes tribunal that indicted Milosevic.
To some, the wisdom of the Congress was borne out when Yugoslav authorities, acting just ahead of the midnight Saturday deadline, arrested Milosevic at his Belgrade villa.
''It's absolutely clear to us that Milosevic would not be behind bars today were it not for the international pressure and specifically the deadline imposed by the U.S. legislation,'' says Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch, a New York-based private group.
But Ivo Daalder of the Brookings Institution says the same result would have occurred without the legislation because both Belgrade and Washington see eye to eye on Milosevic: ''Out of power and in jail.''
He says that during the Milosevic era, Yugoslav institutions were obviously not equipped to deal with war crimes committed by the Belgrade leadership. But now they are, he says, and should take precedence over the U.N. tribunal in bringing Milosevic to justice.
''The issue is not whether he (Milosevic) gets to The Hague. The issue is whether justice gets done,'' says Daalder.
Secretary of State Colin Powell is no fan of sanctions but had no choice but to take into account the congressionally mandated March 31 deadline.
He certified that Yugoslavia had met the congressional requirement that the country take steps to cooperate with The Hague tribunal even though it had not turned Milosevic over to tribunal officials.
The action ensured that the $50 million in U.S. aid would continue, but Powell knew he could not leave the matter there; too many lawmakers want to see Milosevic on trial in The Hague, not Belgrade. As things stand, he faces trial by local authorities for abuse of power.
So Powell, in effect, kicked the can down the road, coupling his certification decision with a requirement that Belgrade continue to cooperate with the tribunal or face withdrawal of U.S. support for a conference this summer involving Yugoslav donor countries.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., called Powell's certification decision ''premature'' but said he was encouraged by the additional inducement to Belgrade to continue working with the tribunal.
Powell can ill afford to ignore Leahy's views, nor those of Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who takes a similar stand on Milosevic. Both have a lot to say about the handling of State Department budget requests because of their respective roles on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
But Daalder thinks the Yugoslavs should be left alone. He says the United States promised the Serbian people they would be welcomed as a partner of European democracies if only they got rid of the Milosevic regime.
That's what they did, and now the United States is telling them ''Oh, you haven't done just what I told you to do,'' and is warning of an aid cutoff, Daalder says.
Dicker demurs. He contends that it is inappropriate for Yugoslav and Serb courts to hear charges relating to crimes against humanity. The best hope for a fair trial is The Hague court, he says.
He adds that political stability in Yugoslavia will be enhanced if Milosevic is tried in The Hague.
''Our research demonstrates that the greatest danger to stability is turning a blind eye to impunity, or allowing impunity to go on in the name of deference to stability,'' he says.
But far from ignoring Milosevic's activities, Yugoslav authorities say they may go beyond corruption and abuse of power charges. They also are considering charges for ''severe criminal acts'' that carry the death penalty.
The officials say that they are not thinking about extraditing Milosevic any time soon. But the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, believes Milosevic will be delivered to The Hague for trial within two to four months.
He is wanted for alleged crimes committed against Kosovo Albanians two years ago and additional indictments are being prepared for crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia between 1992 and 1995.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- George Gedda has covered foreign affairs for The Associated Press since 1968.
On the Net: State Department: http://www.state.gov/www/regions/eur/index.html
Library of Congress country notes: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/frd/csquery.html
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