Let’s Not Forget Milosevic’s Partner in Crime

The New York Times
May 31, 1999

What about Tudjman?

This question comes to mind after the long overdue indictment of Slobodan Milosevic, the President of Yugoslavia and the prime villain behind the carnage that has engulfed the Balkans for the past decade. But President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia is hardly an innocent lamb, and if the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague hopes to be seen as an impartial arbiter of justice, it should match its indictment of Mr. Milosevic with a move against Mr. Tudjman.

For this to happen, the Clinton Administration, which belatedly offered the tribunal crucial intelligence about Mr. Milosevic, should let the tribunal know what it knows about Mr. Tudjman’s links to Croat forces that committed atrocities in Bosnia. Unfortunately, it’s unclear whether the Administration can summon the moral wherewithal to help the tribunal pursue a dictator who has become a useful ally. Croatia’s ports and airports are staging grounds for the NATO-led peacekeeping operation in Bosnia.

Mr. Milosevic is far more responsible than Mr. Tudjman for the bloodshed in the Balkans, and of course Mr. Tudjman is not involved in the cleansing of Kosovo. But ground zero for Balkan war crimes remains in Bosnia, not Kosovo. The tragedy in Kosovo is horrendous and should not be understated, but the known death toll there does not approach the several hundred thousand deaths in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995. Serbian forces are responsible for the bulk of those killings (and rapes and cleansings).

Even so, Croatian forces linked to Mr. Tudjman used similar tactics. The ethnic Croatian militia in Bosnia, the H.V.O., which received crucial support from Croatia proper, conducted vicious cleansing operations in central Bosnia, among other areas. If justice is blind, why should Mr. Milosevic be indicted and not Mr. Tudjman?

The initial answer is that Mr. Milosevic, along with four associates, hasn’t been indicted for crimes in Bosnia. But the reality is that Kosovo is for Mr. Milosevic what income-tax evasion was for Al Capone–an offense that prosecutors can nail him on.

Again, that’s not to underplay the outrageousness of what has happened in Kosovo. But had there been no war in Bosnia, it is unlikely that Mr. Milosevic would have been indicted last week. For the most part, he’s being made to pay for crimes committed by his forces in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Zvornik, Foca and many other Bosnian towns. Mr. Tudjman should face the same music. Some may say this is cruel, or at least moot, because the Croatian leader has cancer and may not have long to live. This excuse has been used for several years.

But if someone is suspected of war crimes, should he be granted more mercies than the innocent men, women and children who have perished?

Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Tudjman kept their distance from the scenes of war crimes and refrained from issuing public orders for the cleansing of Bosnia. The best evidence against them is believed to be found in electronic intercepts gathered by American and other Western spy agencies–phone or radio conversations and telexes or cables that link both men to cleansing campaigns in Bosnia. Until recently, virtually none of it was shared with the tribunal.

The tribunal’s hard-working investigators have labored under a number of handocaps as they have pursued indictments. The local authorities have been reluctant to cooperate, often refusing outright. At the outset, the tribunal received thin financial support from Western nations that didn’t want their diplomatic apple cart upset by a powerful prosecutor. NATO forces in Bosnia have so far arrested only a handful of indicted war criminals.

These handicaps have made it difficult for the tribunal to accumulate concrete evidence linking Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Tudjman to the military forces in Bosnia that they controlled from behind the scenes. Kosovo changed the equation for Mr. Milosevic because unlike Bosnia, Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia, and the forces at work there are under his direct control; the chain of command is as unmistakable as a tank on high ground.

What also changed was the Administration’s willingness to provide incriminating intelligence. Once the White House went to war against Mr. Milosevic, it began releasing satellite imagery of mass graves–for the most part, this wasn’t done in the Bosnian war–and providing classified intercepts to the tribunal. Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor, has not hesitated to issue indictments once she accumulates enough evidence.

This sort of cooperation was long overdue but raises the specter of retribution rather than justice. By turning on and off the flow of intelligence to the tribunal, the Administration can influence indictments. If this means that Mr. Tudjman escapes judgment for lack of evidence, even if the evidence exists in the vaults of the C.I.A. or the National Security Agency, the Serbs will have reason to accuse the tribunal of prosecutorial bias.

In the realm of war crimes, there’s a name for regrettable outcomes of this sort–victor’s justice.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.