What should we do now with this defiant war criminal?

People in Serbia turned against Milosevic not because he fought wars,but because he lost them

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On the day after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, Petar Lukovic, a veteran Belgrade commentator, wrote: "Milosevic will never come back... but, when you get used to your enemy sleeping with you in your own head for so many years, nothing, literally nothing, is easy. Not even the instant news that they'll lift sanctions, return us to Europe, love us as if we are one of their own... all that is little consolation when you realise everything you missed over these 13 years."

On the day after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, Petar Lukovic, a veteran Belgrade commentator, wrote: "Milosevic will never come back... but, when you get used to your enemy sleeping with you in your own head for so many years, nothing, literally nothing, is easy. Not even the instant news that they'll lift sanctions, return us to Europe, love us as if we are one of their own... all that is little consolation when you realise everything you missed over these 13 years."

Outside my window, here in Belgrade, a huge pile of rubbish sacks, in which the dustmen had gathered the debris of hundreds of thousands of revellers, has gone. Traffic is flowing again and a policeman is strolling down the street, issuing parking tickets. The city is returning to its everyday rhythms.

Lukovic writes: "Only now do I confront the lost time. Tired - I salute the Revolution and devote myself to a bottle of 1997 chardonnay. I officially close the chapter of my life of these 13 years and try to begin to be normal."

So, that's what the future holds. For every single citizen of Serbia, for the hundreds of thousands who have fled and emigrated over the past decade or so, for the 800,000 Serb refugees: a coming-to-terms. And it will be hard, very hard.

Let's not talk here about the non-Serb victims of the wars of the former Yugoslavia. Let's not talk about the people who lived through the bombardments, the merciless shelling of Vukovar, of Sarajevo, of Srebrenica. Let's not talk of Croatia's victims, Bosnia's victims or Kosovo's victims. But let's not submit to a new political correctness, either, which tries to claim that Milosevic's Serbia was a "dictatorship" and a "tyranny". It wasn't. If it had been, the coming to terms with the past would be easy, wouldn't it? But there was no immutable law that said that the hundreds of thousands who came out on the streets on Thursday had to sip coffee while Sarajevo burnt.

The living proof of this is Petar Lukovic himself, who has spent the past decade decrying Milosevic and all his doings. If Serbia had had a few more men of guts like him, then the country would not be contemplating the wreckage around it today.

And another unfashionable point. In the end, the majority of people in this country turned against Milosevic not because he destroyed the old Yugoslavia, not because he fought wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo and against Nato, but because he lost them. If the Serbian flag still flew on Knin castle in Croatia, if Sarajevo had fallen to the Serbs in 1992, if the Serbian flag still flew in Kosovo, do you think we would be here today celebrating the fall of a "tyrant"? I can tell you a secret: we would not.

But it's easy for a foreigner to criticise. We must keep things in perspective, and the context here is: "What would you have done?" Difficult, I know. Most Serbs from Serbia never went anywhere near the war zones until Nato brought the war to them last year. Then, all those who had no views on Vukovar and Sarajevo and Srebrenica suddenly had lots of views on why it was wrong to bomb people.

Still, having made these bitter little points, I am not saying that we should not be overjoyed by events here, and indeed rush to help to rebuild Serbia. This morning the EU should begin to initiate the procedures to lift sanctions on Serbia, and other countries will follow suit.

But others, notably the Americans, have begun to mutter that if Milosevic remains a free man, active in politics even, as opposed to being extradited to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, which has indicted him, then that is going to pose problems.

President Kostunica has said that he regards the tribunal as a "monstrous" institution and a kangaroo court for Serbs. He has also said that he has no intention of turning Milosevic, or anyone else for that matter, over to the court.

So, we are presented with a dilemma. If Milosevic and his men escape trial, and we are seen not to care, then it makes a mockery of the court, besides being a "monstrous" injustice for the Serbs already there, if the men who gave them their orders are not punished, yet they are. At the same time, it is in the interests of Serbs, and the rest of the region - and the rest of Europe - for us to give generously for Serbian reconstruction so that stability returns to the Balkans as quickly as possible. We do, after all, have several thousand troops in Kosovo and Bosnia as a result of its instability.

Essentially, the problem is that if we demand that Milosevic and others be extradited now, or else Serbia will remain a pariah deprived of aid, then the country will continue to be unstable and Kostunica may be undermined.

But pragmatism and justice need not be mutually exclusive. For everyone's sake, Serbia must, without doubt, be reintegrated into Europe as soon as possible. But that is not to say that we cannot lay down a marker, and even withhold some cards, just as was done with Croatia until it began to deal, earlier this year, with the war-crimes question. Besides, it may well be that, in the short term, the issue can be side-stepped.

According to Zarko Korac, one of the former opposition leaders behind Kostunica, they intend to file criminal charges against Milosevic for ordering the police and army to fire on demonstrators last Thursday. Those orders were, thankfully, disobeyed. Still, if Milosevic is removed from the scene in that way, it would be a good beginning.

The war-crimes issue, then, is extremely important and ultimately must be dealt with.But, as Kostunica himself has indicated, there are other things that need to be dealt with first, not the least of which is securing his hold on the institutions of state. In time, it may well be that, as has happened in Croatia, public opinion will change. There, polls have shown that the majority of people now firmly believe that war criminals must be punished. Let's hope that happens here, but let's not make the mistake of alienating Serbs so that it doesn't.

To cite Petar Lukovic again: "To live without Milosevic is a feeling that spreads slowly, that enters the veins slowly, very slowly."

The writer is the author of 'The Serbs: history, myth and the destruction of Yugoslavia', published by Yale University Press

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