BELGRADE, Serbia (Reuters) — Slobodan Milosevic and other war crimes indictees will be paid by the Serbian taxpayer for as long as they are on trial at The Hague tribunal, under controversial legislation adopted by parliament on Tuesday.
The bill, proposed by ultranationalists and backed by Milosevic’s Socialist Party, was adopted with ease on the eve of an annual U.S. ruling on whether Serbia is cooperating with the court and can continue receiving aid.
Opponents said it was a poorly-disguised gesture of defiance to the West and a payoff to Socialists for their backing of the minority government of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, a longtime critic of the United Nations tribunal.
Diplomats expect U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will not be able to certify Belgrade’s compliance, triggering suspension of aid worth some $50 million this year.
“If he decides that certification is not possible tomorrow it does not close the possibility that certification might be possible some time in the future,” visiting U.S. Undersecretary of State Marc Grossman said after talks with Kostunica.
In 2002, the aid was frozen for almost two months.
The new law provides all Serbian war crimes indictees at the U.N. tribunal with compensation for lost salaries, plus help to spouses, siblings, parents and children for flight and hotel costs, telephone and mail bills, visa fees and legal charges.
Embraced by Kostunica’s conservatives, the bill marks a first step in “two-way” cooperation with The Hague, his policy for redressing what he views as abject obedience in the past. “This is a sign that Serbia is changing its attitude to the Hague Tribunal,” said acting Radical leader Tomislav Nikolic.
The past government of pro-Western reformists had treated all those who were not part of the anti-Milosevic movement as “war criminals…and…their families as enemies,” he said.
A fellow Radical told parliament that compensation was meant to help “people who are guilty only of being Serbs.”
Opposition Democrats had urged parliament to see the bill for what it was — a pro-Milosevic snub to the West.
“This is payback for (Socialist) support for the minority government,” said outgoing foreign minister Goran Svilanovic. “What Radicals want is for the state to pay Slobodan Milosevic.”
He reminded deputies that most Serbs in the Hague process, though not Milosevic, already got financial help from the state.
Ex-president Milosevic is mid-way through his genocide trial and ex-president Milan Milutinovic is waiting his turn along with Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, whose deputy Nikolic is front-runner in presidential elections expected this summer.
The West would regard his victory as disastrous for Serbia.
So while the United States continues to press Belgrade to hand over 16 indictees to The Hague — fugitive former Bosnian Serb Army commander General Ratko Mladic tops the list — it is also anxious to give Kostunica’s month-old government a chance.
Whether Washington views the new law as a provocation or a necessary move to placate nationalist voters remains to be seen.