Deja Vu in Yugoslavia

Just two years after NATO won its conflict against Yugoslavia, the new government in Belgrade is preparing to extradite former President Slobodan Milosevic.

Trial in The Hague should be a fitting end to the Balkan tragedies that have unfolded since the early 1990s. But instead, the story is ending on a complicated and messy tone. Milosevic will not stand trial for the genocide that NATO said justified the 1999 war for Kosovo; he will instead face serious, but lesser, charges.

And in Yugoslavia, the political cost of extraditing Milosevic will be high. Expect NATO countries to reward Belgrade, quite possibly with the most unusual of prizes — handing Kosovo back to the Serbs.

Two years ago, NATO accused Milosevic of engineering the murder of as many as 10,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. The primary motivation for the war in Kosovo was an attempt to protect the minority Albanian community from persecution by the Serbian government. Two years ago, the rhetoric from Western capitals, particularly Washington and London, was intense: Claims of Albanian dead and missing ranged from the tens of thousands to, on particularly emotional days, the hundreds of thousands. The tribunal in The Hague now says that only a few thousand bodies have been found; many of these were probably victims of the war itself.

What actually happened in Kosovo matters not only in an historical sense, but also in a legal and moral sense. Legally, genocide is a crime against humanity. Crimes against humanity are understood to be extraordinary actions that offend the fundamental moral principles of decent human society. The outside world must treat the perpetrators as outlaws and find the regime in which they served illegitimate in the eyes of the world community. Hence, the international community tried officials of Imperial Japan and Hitler's Germany at the end of World War II and more recently, people implicated in genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s.

But the war crimes that have been discovered in Kosovo — of which Milosevic stands accused — are different. A war crime does not have the enormity of a crime against humanity and can be an isolated event in a generally legal war. For example, during World War II, allied soldiers on occasion shot prisoners from the German Waffen SS. The individual SS soldier had been engaged in crimes against humanity; the American soldier who shot him was not. The American GI, however, was guilty of a war crime: shooting a prisoner.

By confining the charge against the former Serbian leader to war crimes, the tribunal achieves two things. First, it draws a distinction between Milosevic and the Yugoslav regime. Milosevic may have had collaborators, but it is possible to prosecute war crimes charges individually without making the entire regime complicit. This is not the case with crimes against humanity. Second, by confining the charges to war crimes, the tribunal makes a clear statement about the future of Kosovo: The moral basis for ending Belgrade's sovereignty over Kosovo is not compelling.

Now it seems that at a political level, the West is reshaping strategy by making a deal with Milosevic's own supporters. They will not be prosecuted; only Milosevic will stand trial. The only way to move out of gridlock has been to accept the regime — at least its elite — and replace the top leader with a new president, Vojislav Kostunica.

But even with Milosevic on trial in The Hague, the West faces a problem in Yugoslavia. The regime itself is still fundamentally nationalistic. Kostunica is more attractive than Milosevic but he remains a committed Serbian nationalist. Moreover, Kostunica would be completely invalidated politically if he simply caves into Western demands. As a result, Kostunica and his Western allies have focused public attention away from nationalism and toward economic reconstruction.

Yet the West hasn't sent the economic aid the Serbs want. And little will come that will make a qualitative difference in the life of everyday Serbs. The core reason is that the West has not been particularly interested in making substantial investments in Serbia, recognizing the failure of massive aid investments to result in concrete results in other places, such as Russia.

As a result, the West will have to give Kostunica something. The logical outcome is the return of Kosovo. Yugoslav units are already inside the zone that separated them from occupying forces in Kosovo after the war. Elections are scheduled for the fall; it is conceivable that these may not be held, particularly if the vestiges of the Kosovo Liberation Army act up.

Increasingly, the West has really switched sides, opposing the ethnic Albanian movements it backed just two years ago. This is what the conflict in Macedonia is about; it gives NATO a genuine opportunity to continue its policy reversal and blame violence on ethnic Albanian militants. NATO now sees its onetime allies as destabilizing and unfriendly.

In short, in the Balkans — just two years after the West went to war against Yugoslavia — we are going right back to where we started from.

George Friedman is Chairman and Founder of STRATFOR, the global intelligence company. For more information about STRATFOR, click here.