Let The Serbs Try Milosevic

A lot has been happening in Yugoslavia recently, much of it surprising. After some procrastination and an initial failed attempt, Milosevic has been arrested, without bloodshed, though not without danger. The peaceful vote in Montenegro last weekend may presage conflict and difficult decisions about independence, but chances are strong that the parties will settle these matters by talking rather than fighting. These are great steps forward, and they show that despite brainwashing and the complicity of many Serbs in the crimes of the Milosevic regime, democracy and open society have a chance of taking root in what remains of Yugoslavia.

One key decision facing Serbia, and its new authorities, is whether Milosevic should be extradited to The Hague. There seems to be almost universal agreement that he should, and international pressure is being applied on President Kostunica to comply. But the decision may have life-and-death ramifications for Serbia’s future. Many who agree that Milosevic is a war criminal now think that we should listen to the voices coming from Belgrade and their cry that Milosevic should face trial before his own people.

Ultimate moral responsibility for what was done by Milosevic rests with Serbia’s people. They brought him to power, albeit not in a way that conforms precisely with democratic norms; they supported him, even when he led them into genocidal crimes and to defeat after defeat. Finally, they brought him down, and the new democratic leadership in Belgrade has, at no little risk to its own position and standing, arrested him. That arrest could well have ended in a bloodbath that might have destabilized a still insecure democratic government.

Yugoslavia's new leadership should now be allowed to deal with Milosevic in a way that promotes democracy within Yugoslavia. His crimes should be judged by his own people – not by an international tribunal. In this way the trial will gain more legitimacy and credibility, especially among the many Serbs who still need to be educated in order to realize the true extent of Milosevic's crimes. Most importantly, by dealing with Milosevic, the Serbs, many of whom supported his regime, will be forced to confront their own behavior and deal with their own consciences. Only through this process will Serbia be able to rejoin the ranks of free and healthy European nations.