In Milosevic's Wake

His legacy is vast, and appalling. A quarter of a million dead in Bosnia alone. More than 3 million refugees. Later in the '90s, Slobodan Milosevic "planned, instigated, ordered, committed or otherwise aided and abetted in a campaign of terror and violence directed at Kosovo Albanian civilians," according to the 1999 war-crimes indictment against the Yugoslav ex-dictator. It was only part of the toll exacted by the 10-year reign of the man known as "the Butcher of the Balkans." Throughout Milosevic's Yugoslavia, there were countless lives and families destroyed, villages burned, homes violated.

Last weekend Slobodan Milosevic finally got a taste of his own medicine. Once more, as happened so often during his regime, heavily armed men in blue jeans, with balaclavas over their faces, piled out of an armored Chevrolet van, then broke into a Yugoslav home. But this time it was his own home. The secret police, at long last, weren't doing Milosevic's bidding--they were trying to arrest him. That proved harder than anyone expected. By early Sunday, after a daylong standoff, thousands of police surrounded Milosevic's villa in Belgrade. Yugoslav authorities who were wary of provoking a bloody battle with the tiny knot of Milosevic supporters--and fearing he might commit suicide--tried to persuade him to give up. Just before dawn Sunday, after a 26-hour marathon, they finally succeeded. The former strongman was taken away in an armored Mercedes jeep to Belgrade's Central Prison, where a special floor had been prepared for him and other officials of his regime.

But even in the final minutes, it wasn't easy. Just before his arrest, Milosevic pulled out a pistol he had under his coat, threatening to shoot the policemen trying to arrest him, said Deputy Serbian Prime Minister Zarko Korac. Then he said he would turn the gun on himself and members of his family, said Korac, who described him as "quite mentally disturbed" by his humiliation. Milosevic finally agreed to go peacefully, though he later denounced the charges against him as ludicrous. But his agitated daughter, Marija, began firing an automatic weapon until she was persuaded to drop the gun by police who stormed the building. No one was seriously hurt.

By then, what began as the detention of a hated ex-dictator had spiraled into a full-blown crisis among his successors. The standoff over Milosevic's arrest exposed deep-seated divisions between Yugoslavia's popular president, Vojislav Kostunica, and the powerful prime minister of the Serb Republic, Zoran Djindjic. Kostunica had opposed the arrest until the eleventh hour despite the danger of a cutoff in U.S. aid. His bias was clear. Kostunica was elected in a landslide last fall as a middle-of-the-road candidate, leading to Milosevic's ouster. The soft-spoken constitutional lawyer had strongly anti-Western views, appealing both to the Serbs' strong nationalism--the same ethnic pride that Milosevic once exploited--and their desire to put the horrific Milosevic era behind them. Kostunica especially feared looking like a lackey of the NATO allies who want to send Milosevic to The Hague. Djindjic, on the other hand, is an avowed liberal who fears a cutoff of Western funds--and who harbors presidential ambitions himself.

On Saturday the tensions between the two erupted into public view when Djindjic made his move against Milosevic while Kostunica was at a conference in Geneva. As Serbia's leader, Djindjic controls the local police, but Kostunica commands the Army, which at first refused to allow the arrest to proceed. Milosevic's hard-core supporters actually began to cheer Kostunica as the police backed off.

Furious, Djindjic and other officials met with Kostunica and Army commanders for three tense hours. Although the two men have rarely been seen in public together, they emerged from the meeting walking side by side. A tight-lipped Kostunica made a brief statement that said it all: "We will not allow a new state crisis to emerge because of one individual. The laws apply for every citizen, even Slobodan Milosevic." Kostunica refused to take questions, but it was clear that other leaders had persuaded him to give in and let the police end the matter. "If you start something," he said grimly, "you have to finish it." Officials then gave Milosevic a few hours to give up peacefully--even though the ex-dictator had earlier declared "he will not be taken alive to prison," according to a conversation related by the new government's Interior minister, Dusan Mihajlovic.

Kostunica's concession may have been the most decisive moment in Yugoslav politics since Milosevic's ouster last October. Last weekend's events mean that Milosevic's 11-year-long reign of terror is almost certainly ended for good. For Serbs, Milosevic's moments of glory were brief: he incited Serb jingoism, forcing the mightiest military alliance in history, NATO, to go to war for the first time. Far more enduring was his legacy of shame: a wrecked economy, pariah status among nations--and ultimately, perhaps, the final disintegration of Yugoslavia if Montenegro, the last republic outside Serbia, secedes this summer as expected.

A lot of people had expected Milosevic to leave the presidential villa feet first. Both Milosevic's father and mother, as well as a beloved uncle, committed suicide in his youth. Holed up with the former president were his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and his 2-year-old grandson, Marko--plus an unknown number of armed supporters, probably no more than a couple of dozen. "Milosevic is already entering history," said Richard Holbrooke, the former U.S. diplomat who negotiated the Dayton peace accords with him. "He's a has-been."

But until Sunday, he was still a feared one. Ever since Kostunica's electoral victory on Oct. 5, Serbs marveled that Milosevic actually stepped down peacefully. But for nearly six months he retained the trappings of office. Milosevic remained in the presidential villa, heavily guarded by details of soldiers and police. As the new government consolidated control, Milosevic's Socialist Party continued to sit in Parliament, and answer to its leader. But the U.S. Congress imposed an ultimatum that it would cut off aid unless the Bush administration could certify that Yugoslavia was democratizing and cooperating with war-crimes investigators by March 31. The U.S. government suggested Milosevic's arrest was a prerequisite for it to certify to Congress that the country was complying. At stake: $40 million in direct U.S. aid and hundreds of millions of dollars more in multilateral loans that Washington would be legally required to block. That deadline was last Saturday, but Washington extended it to Monday.

The arrest drama began on March 30 when the Interior Ministry ordered Milosevic's police bodyguard to leave. Milosevic offered the policemen quadruple pay out of his own pocket to stay in his service, Mihajlovic said. But only one agreed to do so. Then a notorious paramilitary leader, Sinisa Vucinic, took charge of the villa's security with a group of Milosevic's Socialist Party loyalists. Vucinic commanded the Falcons, a group responsible for a vicious ethnic-cleansing campaign during the war in Bosnia. On Kostunica's orders, Milosevic also had had an Army detail guarding him--ostensibly on the ground that they were protecting the official residence. Interior Ministry authorities said that police in recent days had negotiated an agreement with Army generals to hand over the keys to the presidential villa, and then stay out of the way when the arrest took place. Instead, senior Army officers gave the keys to Vucinic and blocked the doors of Milosevic's villa themselves. The federal troops finally agreed to stand aside at 1:20 a.m., and within an hour and a half the secret-police unit moved in, only to retreat under gunfire from Milosevic's ragtag supporters inside the villa. That began the daylong stalemate.

As the hours wore on, Yugoslav officials realized they had to get Kostunica on their side. Djindjic said the conflict between his Serbian Republic government and federal authorities was "not institutional but personal." The state-owned Politika newspaper reported Saturday that orders for the Army to block the arrest came to Army commander Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic from "higher authorities," suggesting the president. Some saw the confusing arrest endgame as a behind-the-scenes struggle for power. Djindjic, who didn't have enough popular support to win last fall, had been the one who persuaded a reluctant Kostunica to run at the head of the Democratic Opposition coalition. Djindjic's followers widely expected Kostunica to be a figurehead president, with the veteran politician as the power behind the throne. But Kostunica proved a stubborn leader in his own right.

Now, for the moment, he and Djindjic are united in condemning Milosevic. The ex-president was immediately charged with running a criminal gang that fired on police and helped him resist arrest. Other charges leveled against him include abuse of power and corruption in connection with the diversion of $140 million in state funds to the use of his cronies, his party and himself. Police are also investigating Milosevic for fraudulently obtaining a personal home, and for ordering the murders of a journalist and of four politicians. But there are no Yugoslav government investigations of war crimes underway. And that may portend future conflict with the United States and Europe. For today, however, almost everyone can agree: Milosevic is one step closer to the justice he deserves, and Yugoslavia is one step closer to putting its past behind it.