- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia Serbs watching Slobodan Milosevic's feisty defense at his war-crimes trial can't get enough.

Day after day, crowds gather in cafes and bars, on Belgrade sidewalks or wherever they find a television. Many say that even when they want to stop watching, they can't tear themselves away.

"The prosecution is bringing really unprepared witnesses; so far they haven't proven anything," said Branko Todorov, a 22-year-old law student. Mr. Todorov said he never liked Mr. Milosevic, but still he sets his alarm each morning to watch the trial from the opening gavel.

The war-crimes tribunal at The Hague has a staff of 1,100 and an annual budget of nearly $100 million to produce its case against Mr. Milosevic.

Mr. Milosevic, with a 9-by-15-foot jail cell for an office and a public pay phone to prepare his defense, seems to relish the underdog status with which many Serbs identify.

For many Serbs, watching the trial has been a frustrating experience. A Serb finally has a world stage to explain the wrongs done to his country, but it's a man who is hated by most.

"I agree with what he's saying. I just wish it was someone else saying it," said Ana Brkic, 24, a linguistics student in Belgrade. "He looks like a hero, and I hate it."

Many Serbs argue that Mr. Milosevic is innocent, and a recent poll showed that half of all Serbs couldn't name a single war crime attributed to their former leader.

But even those who think he is guilty admit that they agree with Mr. Milosevic's basic argument: that Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Albanians and the international community also are to blame.

Mr. Milosevic deflects questions about Serbian crimes by countering with evidence of crimes committed against his people for example, showing grisly photographs of civilians killed during NATO's bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

"Of course, I don't think there weren't crimes from the Serb side, but there were crimes from all sides," Mr. Todorov said. "I want to see whether this is going to come out."

"I don't justify any kind of crimes because everyone has to be responsible for things he did," said Vladimir Sekulic, a 56-year-old union official watching the trial in a central Belgrade restaurant decorated with paintings of Yugoslavia's former royal rulers. "That's why it's illogical that no one from the NATO aggression is on trial."

His friend, the restaurant's manager, Slobodan Vujinovic, added, "Serbs are a crazy people. In this country, a grandmother can kill 10 people if she has to defend her house. … We are protecting our tribe."

Political analyst Bratislav Grubacic said, "Milosevic has manipulated it fantastically so he's sort of a victim on behalf of the Serbian nation."

In his statements to the court and his cross-examination of witnesses, Mr. Milosevic has not focused so much on his role in the wars, but on the Serbian side in general. Examining prosecution witnesses who testify about incidents of Serbian police abuse in Kosovo, he grills them about Kosovo Liberation Army presence in the same area.

His command of detail and ability to point out inconsistencies, combined with the witnesses' improbable claims that they had no idea about KLA activities, has led many to believe that Mr. Milosevic so far has gained the upper hand.

One witness, Kosovo Albanian farmer Agim Zeqiri, faced a brutal cross-examination from Mr. Milosevic one day and refused to come back the next, saying he wasn't feeling well. Mr. Milosevic also succeeded in disallowing another prosecution witness, saying his evidence would be based on hearsay. One Belgrade tabloid crowed, "Milosevic vs. Tribunal 1:0."

Even the minority of liberals in Serbia who defend the Hague tribunal as a fair, impartial court admit they are frustrated with Mr. Milosevic's ability to make the court look ineffective.

"We are a little bit shocked. Milosevic has prepared his defense very well, and no one calculated that," said Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, president of the Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "I'm asking myself why the prosecutor isn't as well-prepared as Milosevic. We expected that the prosecutor would be doing the job in the best way, and we can't say that."

Though many hoped the trial would increase Serbs' awareness of the crimes committed in their name in the 1990s, it could end up backfiring, Mrs. Kovacevic-Vuco said.

"It's having the opposite effect. The citizens are now taking Milosevic's side and supporting him," she said.

The trial has proved especially vexing for Serbia's new leadership. Many share Mr. Milosevic's nationalist views and mistrust of The Hague, yet are forced to cooperate with the tribunal to please the international community and keep aid flowing. As a result, many political leaders are opting to stay silent or are expressing frustration with the whole process.

"There has been politicking, hypocrisy and strange inconsistencies," said Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who has criticized the court frequently and is the major force in blocking cooperation with it. "So far, we have seen much politics, a huge media spectacle."

Mr. Kostunica's main political rival, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, ordered Mr. Milosevic to be extradited in the summer over Mr. Kostunica's objections. Now, as he watches the case against Mr. Milosevic flounder, he has lashed out at the court.

"I am speechless when I see how much money has gone up in smoke to allow the court to take five years to unearth such insignificant witnesses," Mr. Djindjic told a German newspaper this weekend. The poor prosecution has made it more difficult for him to convince Serbs that more cooperation with the court is needed, he said.

"This circus has left both myself and my government facing an awkward dilemma," Mr. Djindjic said.

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