Letters in Sealed Envelopes

It always begins with confidential whispers. And so repeating was their content on the visit of the lady and her bringing of sealed envelope with her, with the equally confidential arrest orders.

This was followed by the official statements which mostly tried to minimize all the speculations about the number of stated names that were allegedly listed in the expecting sealed letters. It was about the indictments brought by the former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia, Carla del Ponte.

It was not only a legal tool for sanctioning of committed crimes, but also a type of political instrument that encouraged and forced the respect of the promises given to the international legal order. The attitude towards the demands of the Hague Tribunal directly determined the manner and dynamics of negotiations on EU membership. That is why all the visits of the prosecutor and her requests were always the subject of disputes, not only with her and the tribunal, but also within the ruling parties.

In fact, it was never the right moment for the Tribunal’s requests and it would always be much better if del Ponte came with the sealed envelopes at least a month or two later. Both, as they explained, for the big internal political frictions and disputes of reformists and others, and for the upcoming local and national elections.

I followed most of these visits of the chief prosecutor very closely, listened to the Tribunal’s arguments and the reasons of the key politicians on why it would be better to wait with the indictments, and also the requests of others that the requests of the Hague Tribunal should not be taken into account.

And I was always able to find a reason myself for the explanation on why it was not the time. And I always found out that it was never the right time.

The last day of this year’s March, defendant Vojislav Šešelj must return to the International Court in The Hague. More precisely, the court shall announce the verdict on that day. Of course, there is no surprise, and the judges should not find it surprising, that Šešelj does not want to return voluntarily. It also cannot be a surprise that they have caused a lot of trouble to the Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian government with this request.

In conditions that are not quite simple. The government is facing parliamentary elections. Šešelj’s party, according to preliminary analysis, can pass the parliamentary threshold again. There is an obvious differences in the estimates of the head of state, Tomislav Nikolić, who speaks about the respect of the requests of the Hague Tribunal and the state’s duties if the accused Šešelj himself does not appear before the court and the prime minister’s opinion, who emphasizes that the period before the elections is not the right time to arrest the accused.

I see that “right” time, as explained by Vučić, broader, as a result of at least two facts. First, that the Government has implemented, through the conducted parliamentary procedure, an important Act on Ratification of the Agreement with the NATO and that it was  followed by the attacks of domestic opponents immediately afterwards, and a cold response from Moscow and arrived current  Russian requests for assigning a special military status of their humanitarian education centre in Niš. As well some other facts too, precisely  that the situation in Kosovo is radicalizing, based on recent demonstrations in Priština, with the requests for the  change of government and the publication of catastrophic data on social and the economic situation, with all possible consequences. Also on the importance of further Brussels negotiations with Belgrade and the acceptance of the already agreed, including the right to education of the union of Serbian municipalities in Kosovo and consistent protection of Serbs and other minorities.

The request for Šešelj’s returning to The Hague was not brought by the prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, nor did it arrive in a confidential and sealed envelope. The request was forwarded through the established diplomatic mail. However, Vučić’s government will still have to answer. Although conditions are not really the same as almost thirteen years ago, when, on voluntarily departing for The Hague, Šešelj threatened that after his leave, Serbia would burn, and more or less metaphorically announced the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. It should not be forgotten that the Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, during his January visit to Belgrade, met specially with Šešelj, at his own request. Therefore, the issues we could follow almost since the establishment of the Hague Tribunal, that were actually entirely internal political issues, will be opened again.

We could divide them into two groups: those that directly disputed and rejected the jurisdiction of the international court, and the second group, which has raised the issues of the time of the request. And in addition, there are two more exceptions. Two prime ministers who were able to successively negotiate with the Tribunal and, above all, the chief prosecutor, directly and mostly secretly. The first one was Dr. Zoran Đinđić, and the second one – the Croatian Prime Minister Dr. Ivo Sanader.

Đinđić made an agreement on the extradition of Milošević. The response came just a day later, in late June 2001, when the then president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Dr. Vojislav Koštunica, explained to the ambassadors accredited in Belgrade that the extradition of Slobodan Milošević to The Hague Tribunal cannot be considered legitimate and constitutional because the Federal Constitutional Court had issued a temporary measure, the day before the extradition, on suspending the Regulation on Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal until the final decision on the constitutionality of this document. Dr. Koštunica continued, in quite obvious disputing with Đinđić’s government, that such an act can be understood as a serious violation of the legal order of the state, for the legal state cannot be built on illegality. The government was to take over and revive from the arsenal of Milošević’s politics, which was, as Koštunica said that day, truly fatal for the state and the nation, its least democratic elements, state without law, as well as the making of very fast and humiliating moves that no one in the international community had requested, at least not explicitly.

That dispute about the ways of cooperation with the Hague Tribunal was mostly understood, at least in diplomatic circles, as the dispute between the legalists and the reformists in Serbian politics, that is, between Đinđić and Koštunica. And in fact, as Nenad Dimitrijević wrote in his article “Serbia as Unfinished State”, it was, back then already, about the loss of key national consensus on what direction of development should post-Milošević Serbia take – as a modern state or a state of all Serbs.

The late Croatian President Franjo Tuđman had essentially a similar attitude towards the Hague Tribunal. His thesis was that Croatia should never allow the arrests or extraditions to The Hague of those Croatian officers who had participated in military operations to restore Croatian territory under control of the Croatian government.

After his death, the Tribunal obtained a large amount of documents, records and recorded conversations hidden in the military bases in Zagreb and Split, which enabled new indictments.

One of them was the indictment against general Mirko Norac. The new government of Dr Ivica Račan was clumsy in their responses. The opposition organized huge demonstrations, in line with Tuđman’s doctrine of non-cooperation with the Tribunal. The waterfront in Split gathered good two hundred thousand demonstrators demanding the change of the government and announcing a march on Zagreb. Račan’s government somehow managed to agree between the two options – the use of police force against the protesters and attempt of a peaceful solution. Vice president Goran Granić managed to agree with del Ponte, with the help of the mediators, that the Norac trial would be in the country and that he would serve his sentence in Croatian jails.

The second part of the political response to the Hague indictments was related to time.

When del Ponte announced to Račan that she had a warrant for the arrest of General Janko Bobetko in a sealed envelope, his response, after his first shock, was everything but relatively rational. That he only just took over the government, that the conditions were extremely complex and that the cooperation of his government in the arrest of the general would imply its end. The chief prosecutor’s response was repeating: “If I wanted to respect all your schedules and your political conditions, I would never finish the job.”

She used exactly the same answer in October 2003. Minister Žarko Korać told me about its content during our conversation in my Belgrade residence. The prosecutor came with four envelopes containing four new indictments that she wanted to hand over to the new Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Živković. There was a dispute and the estimation of the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, very moderate Goran Svilanović, that the prosecutor did not understand neither conditions nor the period she chose to bring new requirements. That she should give them time, at least until early next year, because it was during the parliamentary debates on confidence in the government, presidential elections, reforms in the army etc, and finished that the prosecutor really did not know what were the matters. Del Ponte reportedly immediately got up and left the meeting.

Of course, the indictments she had brought in sealed envelopes remained.

It seems it won’t be much different this last day of March. Šešelj will have to go to The Hague and hear the verdict. And Vučić’s government will have to continue its European path.