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    A Times Editorial

    Milosevic behind bars

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 4, 2001

    The arrest of Slobodan Milosevic was an act of political courage on the part of Yugoslavia's new democratic government. Milosevic was toppled in a popular uprising late last year, but he retained considerable political clout -- and a loyal security force. The very survival of Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica's government would have been threatened if the attempt to arrest Milosevic had turned bloody or been repelled.

    Ideally, the arrest eventually will lead to Milosevic's standing trial before an international tribunal for crimes against humanity throughout the Balkans. However, the United States and other Western nations should not press Belgrade too forcefully. Yugoslavia's fragile government can't afford to be seen as capitulating to international pressure rather than bringing Milosevic to justice on its own terms.

    Milosevic's repression of his own people was almost as brutal as his campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere in the region. Milosevic and his inner circle also are accused of enriching themselves while destroying a formerly wealthy and cultured society. Holding Milosevic accountable for his internal crimes is warranted on its own merits. It also could give Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic time to build the case, politically as well as legally, for turning Milosevic over to international prosecutors. Several lower-level defendants have been successfully prosecuted in The Hague for crimes they committed under Milosevic's direction. However, no other arrest and prosecution has carried such explosive political ramifications.

    U.S. diplomatic pressure helped to persuade Kostunica to confront Milosevic. The Yugoslavs have largely met Washington's demands to institute democratic reforms and cooperate with international prosecutors, but the unavoidable issue of Milosevic's continued freedom had held up a $50-million U.S. aid package. While Washington was justified Monday in releasing that token assistance, broader future aid can be tied to the eventual fate of Milosevic in courts in Belgrade and The Hague.

    Most Yugoslavs would agree with the assessment of Marina Kulundzic, a Belgrade economist, that Milosevic was "the worst thing that happened to Yugoslavia since the Second World War." There have been no major public demonstrations opposing Kostunica's and Djindjic's plans to put Milosevic on trial and, in the process, expose the details of an ugly chapter in Yugoslavia's history. That history will not be complete, however, until an international court also holds Milosevic accountable for the butchery he set loose throughout the Balkans. If Washington is patient as well as resolute, it can help to move the government and people of Yugoslavia toward acceptance of that broader definition of justice.

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