As reports came out late on Friday night about Slobodan Milošević's arrest, the world quickly turned to Internet sources and old cable television standbys to find out if the news was really true: was the ousted former Serb president really taken into custody and would he be jailed in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) or taken to The Hague?
Seemingly all news had mention of a B92 (television station) report that Serb police had stormed Milošević's compound and that the first steps were underway to bring the notorious corrupt leader to justice. Quickly, however, new reports came out suggesting that no such arrest had been made and that the Balkan nemesis was just hanging out and having coffee with friends.
Then amid a second attempt to arrest Milošević, new reports surfaced that there was a stand off between the old guard and the new; a real power struggle took hold in Belgrade forcing the question of how Serbia would face its future. Would it comply with a US State Department mandate to arrest the fallen leader, thus complying with a March 31 deadline—tied to foreign aid and international war crime tribunal mandates?
Other lesser-acknowledged questions also became apparent. What is the role of the international media in reporting on such heavy news and thus shaping how world leaders react to crisis situations? And, have we all become so accustomed to instant news and live coverage that any thought of entertaining the idea of digesting and contemplating events of such magnitude are out of the question?
Everything on hold until Monday?
As of Saturday morning at 9 am, the US State Department press office had not released any official announcement about the situation in Serbia, saying that they were gathering facts and awaiting further details about what is happening in Belgrade before acting further.
What is for sure is that there have been and continue to be many conflicting reports about the situation and that what seems imminent is that a real political battle is unfolding between the old guard and the new, as Serbia spirals further into its transition period.
Milošević has been charged with a laundry list of corruption charges, and added to them now are new accusations that he will be charged with resisting arrest and illegal possession of arms. Public survey polls recently taken in Serbia suggest that the majority of Yugoslav citizens support his arrest and that there will not be a major backlash if the former president is brought to trial either in Serbia or taken to The Hague.
What is the upshot of all of this?
Eric Witte of the Coalition for International Justice in Washington, DC stated in an interview with CER on Saturday that, "It is so important for the future of Serbia that they start complying with the international pressure to comply with the US State Department's expectations that were tied to the March 31 deadline." He stated further that if they do so, it would put them on the fast track of joining the European mainstream. If they do not comply with the conditional requirements, Witte is not very optimistic about the future of Serbia and cites that its economic situation only stands to worsen.
When asked whether he agreed with reports on Saturday that the arrest of Milošević was just a coincidence and had no bearing on US foreign policy, Witte stated, "I don't believe that for a second; it was absolutely driven by the 31 March deadline."
Nonetheless, the actions taken in Serbia over the weekend will most probably be enough for President Bush to certify that FRY has met expectations tied to conditional requirements and that it will receive the much needed economic aid vital to reforming and rebuilding the economy after 13 years of despotic rule that has left it in complete devastation.
Witte criticized the Yugoslav government for not taking further steps to extradite Milošević, commenting that they are fully aware that non-compliance would isolate the FRY not only from Europe but also from the rest of the international scene. The time to act is now, when the public still favors the kinds of reforms necessary to put Serbia on the proper path of transition. Waiting to see how things will play out and being overly cautious as to avoid nationalistic uprisings and public backlash is not the answer.
Lessons should have been learned from other areas of the Central and East European region, where the transition from Communism to democracy showed that there is a small window of opportunity to act. Implementing the kinds of reforms needed to jumpstart not only democratic and accountable governance but also meaningful economic restructuring necessary for sustainability and competitiveness within an international marketplace are not easy ones to swallow.
However, according to Witte, instead of using the leverage provided by the conditionality rules given by the March 31 deadline, the State Department has spent the past few weeks trying to avoid a nationalist backlash and putting too much pressure on what it considers a fragile government.
These are hollow sentiments indeed, given that expectations amongst the public are high and that they may become increasingly disappointed if the economic situation worsens and a lack of proof that what the opposition fought for was so worth the wait. If other regional patterns in CEE hold true, in three to six months time, according to Witte, the popularity of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) will decline and other power structures in FRY will take hold. The upshot of this is that if the US State Department is reluctant to act now and push forth the conditionality rules, then further down the road all we will see is another missed opportunity.
Failure to craft meaningful reforms will possibly have ramifications beyond the borders of the FRY, as other