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Serving witness in Serbia

Something has changed in Serbia, but the handling of the issue of war crimes will ultimately demonstrate just how much.

By Martin Bell, MP, and Anthony Borden

As the scale of the opposition victory in the Yugoslav elections becomes increasingly apparent, attention focuses on the explosive dynamics of the aftermath and the competing capacity of Slobodan Milosevic to unleash violence and his victorious challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, to organise public protest.

Yet whatever the immediate result, the bigger question is how much has Yugoslavia really changed? Clearly the population has lost a core of sense of fear and complicity with the regime. But on the fundamental issue of responsibility for the past decade of crisis, has Serbia moved?

The issue is a deeply personal one for two people in Yugoslavia who have been at the forefront of opening debate on the central issue of responsibility for war crimes. Miroslav Filipovic, a Serbian journalist from Kraljevo, was convicted over the summer on charges of "espionage" for reporting on war crimes over the Internet for a British media charity, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. One story reported on the shame felt by Yugoslav troops over a massacre of Kosovo Albanian children.

A long-time Yugoslav loyalist - he is from a military family - Filipovic was awarded "European Internet Journalist of the Year" by a British journalism school, although no Serbian media would dare publish his stories. Sentenced to seven years, he is suffering a severe heart condition and extreme loss of weight, yet in the days before the election was moved from hospital back to the military prison in Nis, awaiting appeal.

Natasha Kandic has been isolated, in her own way, for much longer. The leading human rights activist in Belgrade, Kandic, along with just a few others, has led the movement to research and speak out about war crimes committed by Yugoslav and Serbian security forces over the years. Her Humanitarian Law Centre has been at the forefront of documenting and publicising crimes and repression in Yugoslavia.

Kandic displayed particular courage during the NATO bombing campaign, when she drove - a single woman alone - to Kosovo, both to witness atrocities by Yugoslav forces and to bring food and other support for Kosovo Albanian friends in hiding. Her international reputation spiralled - winning a slew of human rights and "civic courage" awards - in inverse proportion to her increasingly isolated and fragile position at home.

Their stories became intertwined this summer, when Kandic spoke out about the Filipovic case and war crimes in an interview with a Belgrade newspaper Danas. If Filipovic broke the ultimate taboo, Kandic brought the question home within the local media, and the reaction was sharp. Senior Yugoslav officials immediately threatened Kandic, too, with prosecution. A fierce personality, she refused to back down, replying with a long and moving letter to the newspaper, detailing some of what she had seen in Kosovo. "I will not remain silent about the horrors your generals sent young recruits to witness in Kosovo," she said.

So after the vote, what prospects for Kandic, Filipovic and war crimes in Serbia now? The answer is complex, and sheds light on the real meaning of the election results.

"For the first time," Kandic says, "I feel that I am not alone, and that is terribly important." After the Danas exchange, Kandic says she and her organisation received many letters, and to date the authorities have not dared to take steps against her, aware of the documentation she possesses, as well as her international reputation.

More intriguingly, there have been serious cracks in the establishment, with a senior political figure bolting Milosevic's party, army officials differing over strategy and tactics in Montenegro and elsewhere, and early reports that even many police, Milosevic's core constituency, turning against him at the polls. Filipovic's articles cite army officials breaking ranks over official policy.

Yet this hardly means overnight change. "Serbia is and remains a shelter for war criminals," Kandic insists. "No one at the moment is in a position to arrest them."

Kostunica, should he assume the presidency, is trained as a lawyer, but he is now a full-blown politician too and he has expressed his opposition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. While saying that Filipovic - and all 'political prisoners' - should be released, he has also called the journalist a liar. Kostunica is not readying to arrest Milosevic.

Further complicating the picture, whatever happens with Milosevic, political power in Serbia will be divided among competing institutions. While the opposition appears to have won the federal presidency and the municipal authorities, Milosevic's ruling coalition may retain control of the federal parliament, which is technically sovereign over the president, as well as the Serbian republican parliament and presidency which were not up for a vote. A painful and potentially explosive period of cohabitation may beckon.

Beyond elective positions, the politicisation of the civic institutions will take a long time to undo, even in the best of circumstances. Milosevic has purged the police and the judiciary, and although there appear to be cracks in these bastions of the establishment, change will not occur overnight.

More fundamentally, the question remains whether the Serbian people are ready seriously to open the question of their state's responsibility for war crimes. Milosevic's is hardly the only official indicted by the Tribunal, and many more indictments could be expected. Even while promising to end Yugoslavia's isolation, Kostunica ran his campaign as a moderate nationalist strongly opposed to western policies.

The closed nature of other societies, especially in Kosovo but even in a changed Croatia, will impede mutual recognition of war crimes, and eventual reconciliation.

"War crimes will be a long-term process," says Kandic. "It is impossible to say right after victory that Serbia is ready to open the question."

For a Serbia facing a painful and possibly extended transformation, this indicates an international policy of constructive engagement. Ineffective sanctions should be lifted, but clear targets and standards, especially on human rights and responsibility for war crimes, should be set, and effective diplomatic and aid levers maintained.

For Kandic and other activists like her, it means a period of high risk. Whether Milosevic opts for outright dictatorship or merely rearguard repression, 'disappearances' of the politically engaged are certainly possible.

That leaves Miroslav Filipovic, who helped spark open the debate, awaiting the results on the main political stage as well as an appeal in the military court in October. Amid the euphoric prospects of change, one bellwether - regardless of president - will be when he is released, and then when articles on war crimes and responsibility by him and many of his colleagues appear freely in the Serbian press. It may yet be some time.

Martin Bell, the former BBC correspondent and independent MP for Tatton, is chair of the "Friends of Filipovic Committee". Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

© Institute of War &Peace Reporting

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