President Bush yesterday warned visiting Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica that further U.S. aid to the budding democratic regime depended on firm commitments by Belgrade to hand over former strongman Slobodan Milosevic to an international war crimes court.
“The president clearly stated that Milosevic must face justice for his international crimes,” National Security Council spokeswoman Mary Ellen Countryman said after a 10-minute White House meeting between the two presidents.
Secretary of State Colin Powell on April 2 capped U.S. aid to Belgrade this year at $100 million and conditioned U.S. participation in a key “donors conference” this summer to rebuild Yugoslavias shattered economy on a firm promise to hand over Mr. Milosevic to the United Nations war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.
Mr. Kostunica, in his first trip to Washington since ousting Mr. Milosevic in October, issued a public plea for more leeway in handling Mr. Milosevic, calling outside pressure “counterproductive” when the new government is still trying to establish basic legal and political institutions. He said Yugoslavias own courts should first pass judgment on Mr. Milosevic and his regime before any international reckoning took place.
“In a country going through such a profound transition, one should give priority to national justice,” Mr. Kostunica said in an address at the Cato Institute, adding that simply handing over Mr. Milosevic to the international court would undermine domestic respect for the rule of law.
Mr. Kostunica said his government would have a bill ready by the end of the month that would outline steps to cooperate with The Hague tribunal, but said the countrys parliament then would have to consider the measure.
Bush administration officials hailed the Kostunica visit as “historic,” but appeared to give short shrift to his pleas for patience.
Said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher: “There are a whole number of actions that are going to need to take place for cooperation, one of which is turning Milosevic over. We think that Yugoslavia has an international obligation, that they need to meet that obligation and, therefore, that the question to be asked is how and when theyre going to meet that obligation.”
The Milosevic regime, which ruled for a decade before being toppled in October, stands accused of a series of war crimes culminating in the 1998-99 campaign against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo.
Despite the tension over the war-crimes issue, Mr. Kostunicas visit was a radical change from the harsh relationship with Yugoslavia that characterized the Milosevic years.
The Yugoslav president, a constitutional lawyer who once translated “The Federalist Papers” into Serbian, met with Mr. Bush, Mr. Powell, Vice President Richard B. Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice yesterday as he welcomed a “fresh start” in U.S.-Yugoslav relations.
In his Cato Institute address, Mr. Kostunica said an economically secure, democratic Yugoslavia was critical to stability in the Balkans. He said separatist talks in Kosovo and Montenegro — the junior partner to Serbia in what is left of the Yugoslav Federation — would mean only more unrest in the region.