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Steve Erlanger

New York Times reporter Steve Erlanger returns to the show to talk about the upcoming trial before the International War Crimes Tribunal of Slobodon Milosevic.

51:28

Transcript

DATE July 12, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Steven Erlanger discusses the indictment of Yugoslav
leader Slobodan Milosevic by the War Crimes Tribunal
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, is facing an International
War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity. The
trial will test the powers of the new international tribunal, which was
created by the UN Security Council. It's also likely to reveal new
information about Serbia as well as the conduct of NATO and the US.

Milosevic lead his country into four ethnic wars which left 200,000 people
dead. But the charges against him only cover the 1999 war in Kosovo. He's
accused of controlling the forces that drove 740,000 Kosovo Albanians from
their homes, and killed several hundred in cold blood. Milosevic is also
charged with breaking the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war.

My guest, Steven Erlanger, covers central Europe and the Balkans for The New
York Times. Yesterday he spoke with us from his home base in Prague. I asked
him what makes this war crimes trial so precedent-setting.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (The New York Times): Well, it is extraordinary and, you
know, in some ways, seen from one direction, it opens up a whole new vista of
international responsibility and justice and bringing people to book. On the
other hand, it's a diminution of sovereignty that makes many smaller countries
very uncomfortable, particularly since to many of them it seems like the
tribunal is victor's justice and not real justice. So what makes it vital,
important, is this is the first time a head of state has been brought to book
before an international court of justice of any kind. I mean, there were
efforts after the First World War to bring the kaiser to trial and certainly
Nuremberg would've liked to have had Hitler in the dock. But this is the
first time you will have a trial of a head of state, and that is fascinating
and it raises serious questions, you know, and it's a serious test for this
new idea of international justice.

If the United Nations is, as Kofi Annan has claimed, the sole authority of
legitimacy, the sole source of legitimacy for the use of force in the world
now, that means two things. It means, one, that the war in Kosovo was not
legitimate because the UN did not authorize it, and--but it also means, two,
that the UN set up trial of Milosevic and others--it should be said
others--for their crimes in the former Yugoslavia beginning with the Bosnian
war and extending through Kosovo, could have enormous precedent-setting things
for the future. And those could be very good things. They could intimidate
future tyrants from acting badly. At the same time, they could, you know,
also make the Third World very unhappy about this new notion of justice.

And you'll see in the United States itself, you know, which is adamantly
opposed to the International Court of Justice--this new court that the UN
wants to set up, because it's afraid American citizens will be brought to
book. So the United States is quite happy, it seems, to bring to trial even
the heads of state of other countries but is unwilling to even allow the
possibility that its own citizens might be brought to book. This is the kind
of contradiction that makes a lot of people all over Europe and the rest of
the world very nervous.

GROSS: What Americans might be brought to stand trial before an international
court?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, if it's a real international court that doesn't have a
limited jurisdiction, the way The Hague tribunal has over Yugoslavia or over
Rwanda--those two cases are clear--then, for instance, an Iraqi citizen or
Saddam Hussein could bring the United States up for charges over
indiscriminate bombing of Iraq, for instance. Or someone could bring the
Russians up for trial over what they've done in Chechnya, which in my view is
as bad as anything that's happened in the last half of this century after the
Second World War. And what the Russians have done in Chechnya--which is,
after all, a part of the Russian federation--dwarfs the horrors, and they were
horrors, that the Serbs committed in Kosovo, but no one's bringing Putin to
book or Boris Yeltsin.

GROSS: Is that what you meant before by the fact that some people call the
new War Crimes Tribunal victor's justice?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, yes, because to some degree, you know--I mean, let's put
it this way: It was set up with Bosnia in mind. It has now been six years
since the end of the Bosnian war. The same tribunal that Milosevic now faces
for Kosovo has still not been able to put together a case for him about
Bosnia. It never indicted Franjo Tudjman, the former Croatian leader, for his
acts in Bosnia. He and Milosevic had basically agreed to carve up Bosnia.
Those were the two guys who bore the prime responsibility for the horrors of
Bosnia. And the tribunal never got it together, for whatever reason, to
indict them.

And some people would suggest one of the main reasons that never happened is
Franjo Tudjman was very close to the Germans and very useful to the Americans.
And Slobodan Milosevic, in Dayton, was very useful to the Americans and only
became a problem, and hence indictable, when Kosovo happened. In other words,
it didn't matter what he did in Bosnia; he was useful for political interests,
for the interests of the big powers that set up the tribunal in the first
place, that--one of the main reasons he and Tudjman were not indicted was
because their indictments might have undercut the peace in Bosnia. Now that's
an argument. I'm not saying it's necessarily true, but it's certainly an
argument that's not been refuted very successfully, as far as I'm concerned.

GROSS: Why isn't genocide among the charges? Why isn't Bosnia included in
the charges?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, you'd have to ask Carla Del Ponte and Louise Arbour, who
actually made the indictment over Kosovo, that question. They say--Louise
Arbour has said since that she didn't include Bosnia because she hasn't
proofed for it yet. Carla Del Ponte says she expects to have indictments for
Bosnia and Croatia against Mr. Milosevic in a few months. But one doesn't
really know.

The problem with The Hague is that, you know, it works with unidentified
witnesses and in some ways you really don't know what they're dealing with, so
a lot of their material, I believe, is from secret intercepts from the same
governments that bombed Serbia. And those governments may be unwilling to
have their sources released, so that may be one of the tribunal's problems,
too, which is how to make a charge that it can actually reveal in court.

GROSS: Is this expected to be a tough case for the prosecutors? What do they
need to do to prove their case against Milosevic?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well that's a very good question because it's not clear to me.
I mean, he's the big enchilada. I mean, he's the one for whom this tribunal
was set up by the Security Council, driven by the United States. You know, it
is designed as a tribunal solely to deal with the former Yugoslavia, and given
that Milosevic was in charge of the main part of the former Yugoslavia,
Serbia, and is regarded in the West as the great demon that caused all of this
evil to happen, the tribunal's very happy to have him.

The question is, how do you prove direct command responsibility? Milosevic
has said publicly, for instance, on Bosnia--for which, again, he's not been
indicted--that he was simply acting to defend the interest of Serbs in Bosnia.
He will say he gave no orders to any Bosnian Serb to kill anybody. And unless
the tribunal can prove, through people who've turned state's evidence or
through other (technical difficulties) that he did issue such orders, I think
the case will be very hard to prove. The same may be true for Kosovo, but
given that, you know, they actually had an army in Kosovo of their own--I
mean, Kosovo was part of Serbia, and I think, you know, command responsibility
is clear there, but the charges are of a lesser kind. They aren't war crimes,
they're crimes against humanity. But they don't include genocide, and
genocide is the big problem. I mean, there's very few people would compare
what happened in Kosovo to the Holocaust, for instance.

GROSS: In April, before Milosevic was sent to The Hague to face the War
Crimes Tribunal, he was arrested in Serbia by Serb authorities. And in the
spring, Milosevic admitted that he had channeled state funds to Serbian forces
fighting wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the 90s. What's the importance of that
admission?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's important for a couple of reasons. One, it's part
of his defense that he was doing it for state reasons to protect Serbs, you
know, that he was not doing it in order to kill Croats or kill Muslims or
cleanse them or murder them, and that his interests were not genocidal; in
other words, he was not trying to wipe out a people, he was simply trying to
defend Serb interests. That's the first thing.

The second thing is that unless you can prove that he then ordered these
people to murder, rape, pillage, it'll be hard to produce command
responsibility. But it is also important because, in other case in The Hague,
in the International Court of Justice, there has been a long ongoing lawsuit
against the former Yugoslavia by the Croats, and particularly the Bosnian
state which alleged the activities, the formal Serbian government activities,
in funding these wars. And Milosevic, in a sense, admitted that that was
true, so he made Belgrade's chances of defending itself in this other court
against demands for justice and money from the Bosnian government and the
Croatian government that much harder to defend.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger. He covers central Europe and the Balkans
for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Steve Erlanger and he's the bureau chief for central
Europe and the Balkans at The New York Times. And we're discussing the
upcoming trial of Slobodan Milosevic.

Two Croats have recently been indicted by the international tribunal. Who are
they and what are they indicted--what are the charges?

Mr. ERLANGER: Their names have not been publicly released by the tribunal.
They were indicted about a month ago. But according to the Croat media,
they're two generals. One of them serving is actually of Albanian extraction,
and the other one retired, and they have been indicted for war crimes
committed against ethnic Serbs who were living in Croatia during the Bosnian
war. I mean, during that war, Serbs killed many thousands of Croats, and
Croats killed fewer thousands of Serbs. But in a place called the Krajina, at
the end of the war, the Croat army, trained by the United States, swept
through and drove Serbs out of Krajina, from which very few have since
returned. And it is that campaign, which was known as Operation Storm, for
which these two men have been indicted.

And the new government of Croatia, which is much less nationalist than Tudjman
and much more democratic, has been in a terrible difficulty about what to do.
And as you know, the main coalition partner has left the government, and there
will be a vote of confidence on Sunday to see whether that government will
survive this new challenge to live up to its commitment to The Hague tribunal.

GROSS: Now you say that Slobodan Milosevic's testimony before the
international tribunal (technical difficulties), how?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it depends on how he chooses to play it. I mean, for
the moment Milosevic is acting as if the tribunal has, you know, no power, no
authority, and he won't deal with them. I mean, his one line in his one
public appearance was, you know, `The court is simply a way to justify NATO's
crimes against the Serbs.' If he's clever he won't stick with that but, in
fact, will offer a defense that says `I was defending my own people, and in
the meantime if I was supposed to be a war criminal, all these Western leaders
were dealing with me quite happily because I was useful for them. Not only
did they, you know, eat my meat and drink my wine, but made me certain
promises.'

Perhaps they even promised him he wouldn't be indicted for Bosnia after the
Dayton agreement in 1995. That's long been rumored. I don't know if it's
true, but Milosevic might throw it into the pot. He could say that, you know,
in a conversation--I don't know, again, if this is true--but that, you know,
George Bush Sr. or Richard Holbrooke later made certain promises to him and
they had certain understandings that would prove deeply embarrassing to the
American government, let alone to other governments.

GROSS: Has anyone in the American government implied that they're worried
about these kinds of statements?

Mr. ERLANGER: Privately, to me, yes. But publicly, no. I mean, privately
many Western governments--the Americans, the British, the Germans, the French;
I've talked to all of them--have senior officials who are very nervous about
Carla Del Ponte and The Hague and believe that by her actions, which have
sometimes been precipitous and noisy, she risks destabilizing the Balkans. I
think some of their concerns have been overwrought, I must say. And, you
know, there is a very important virtue in justice. And there's a very
important virtue in dealing openly in testimony with the crimes that were
committed in the former Yugoslavia.

But there is no question that The Hague is a politically informed tribunal. I
remember when Louise Arbour indicted Milosevic, at the very end of the Kosovo
war--before the war ended--she was quite open in saying she indicted Milosevic
before the war ended because she wanted to make sure that the governments who
wanted to end the war wouldn't trade away the promise of no indictment to
Milosevic as the cost of ending the war. So she was nervous about that kind
of political pressure. I don't expect that kind of political pressure is any
less of a worry to The Hague tribunal now.

GROSS: Louise Arbour was the first chief prosecutor. What can you tell us
about her successor, the current chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte?

Mr. ERLANGER: I've never talked with her, I've been in rooms with her. I've
read lots of interviews with her. She's strong, fierce, intelligent. She's
very press-conscious, very press-minded, but everyone is these days, whether
they're a prosecutor or a politician. And she was pressing very hard, you
know, as she should have done, for all the members of the United Nations to
live up to their commitments to hand over indicted suspects to The Hague. And
I don't criticize her for trying to do her job. The only criticism one might
make--and this comes more from governments in the region--is that she's being
very political about what she's doing, in the sense that, for instance, these
indictments of Croats might've been ready just one month ago, but they also
might've been happening now to make Serbs feel better that Milosevic was
handed over to The Hague by showing that the tribunal could, in fact, finally
indict some high-ranking Croats, one of whom happened to be an ethnic
Albanian. And it seems to me the political impact of those indictments of
Croats in Serbia is certainly part of her thought process.

GROSS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but when Milosevic was arrested in Serbia in
April--this was to stand trial in Serbia; this had nothing to do with the
International War Crimes Tribunal. But when he was arrested in Serbia he
threatened to kill his wife and daughter. What was that about?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I was in Belgrade at the time and spoke directly to
Chedamir Ivanovic(ph), who was the Democratic politician negotiating directly
with Milosevic and his family over his surrender. And Cheda told me that
Milosevic, at different moments, had his own pistol in and out of his own
mouth, threatening suicide, and at one point also threatened to kill his
family, but his daughter Maria also threatened to kill herself and, in fact,
when Milosevic finally agreed to surrender, she fired shots from her gun into
the air.

Now there's this myth about Milosevic, that he's somehow suicidal. I don't
think he is suicidal. I think he would've killed himself a long time ago.
But it stems from his family history because they're--both of his parents
committed suicide and his uncle, I believe, did as well. I don't believe he's
a suicidal figure. I do believe he was terribly worried about the shame and
humiliation that has now been brought upon him and perhaps, in dark moments,
perhaps wishes that he pulled the trigger. At the same time my own sense of
Milosevic is that he is a fighter, for good or ill, and that he is likely to
try to turn the case in The Hague into an offensive case against the West and
NATO and many of the officials with whom he dealt. He does seem to believe,
in his own head--and I think he's been living outside reality for quite a long
time, the way most autocrats get, because nobody ever tells them the truth--I
think he really does believe, in his own head, that all of his actions in
Bosnia and Kosovo are justifiable, that no serious crimes were committed, that
all this was invented.

So I think, you know, this case in The Hague, when we get there could be very
instructive. It will tell us much about Milosevic, it will tell us much about
Serbia. I hope it will tell the Serbs a lot about themselves. But it may
also tell the West something about the limits of sovereignty, and its own
complicity in shutting its eyes to horrible events because it had other
political aims in view.

GROSS: Steven Erlanger covers central Europe and the Balkans for The New York
Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: Coming up, handing Milosevic over to the International War Crimes
Tribunal in The Hague. We continue our conversation with Steven Erlanger of
The New York Times.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Steven Erlanger. He covers
central Europe and the Balkans for The New York Times. We're discussing the
trial of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic. The International
War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has accused him of crimes against humanity in
Kosovo in 1999. It's the first time a head of state has been brought before
the court.

Who's going to represent Milosevic at the trial?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, he says, so far, he's going to represent himself; he's a
lawyer. But, you know, someone is bound to tell him in that old line that,
you know, `the only one who represents himself has a fool for a client.' And
there have been some very political Canadian professors of law who have
founded us. The Milosevic defense committee have met with him in The Hague.
And, you know, there are different people. Ramsey Clark, the former American
attorney general, has volunteered to help defend Milosevic in front of The
Hague. Mr. Clark has been very much involved in sometimes unpopular and
radical calls which he believes are important for the larger concern of
justice. So maybe Mr. Clark will help. But it's up to Milosevic. He has
some Serbian lawyers, too. I don't think he's decided. And I don't think the
tribunal will be ready even to have a trial until the end of the year.

GROSS: The Serbian government handed Milosevic over to the international
tribunal, even though President Kostunica said that he would never do that.
Why did he make that pledge in the first place?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, he made it because he believed that it would be wrong to
do so. I mean, he believes--I'm speaking, you know, of what his beliefs are
now--that The Hague tribunal was illegitimate, was more a political instrument
than an instrument of justice, was designed by the Americans to punish the
Serbs, that it had indicted a lot of Serbs and nobody else, or very few other
people, that it wasn't, you know--that it had too many rather illegal aspects,
to wit: the use of blind witnesses and anonymous testimonies, the lack of a
jury. There are lots of things about it that he didn't like. He also didn't
like the idea of turning over an elected head of state to The Hague tribunal.
Pressured by reality, I think, and, you know, the need to be a responsible
politician as president, Kostunica very reluctantly agreed to cooperate with
The Hague anyway, but wanted a law to be passed authorizing that cooperation
with The Hague. And it was in the process of trying to get that law
passed--he had trouble doing it--that the federal government issued a decree
allowing such cooperation. That decree was challenged in the Constitutional
Court. The Constitutional Court put a temporary suspension on any handovers
while it looked at the decree.

But Zoran Djindjic, who's the prime minister of Serbia, and a rival of
Kostunica's, decided, with the Serbian government, to hand over Milosevic
anyway and didn't even tell Kostunica, and did so despite the ruling of this
Constitutional Court. I mean, and he did so on the eve of a donors'
conference that the United States threatened not to attend unless Serbia
cooperated with The Hague. So to some degree, you know, a lot of people
regarded this as a form of blackmail. I mean, the position of the West was,
`What do you want, Milosevic or the money?' And both Kostunica and Djindjic
have no great love for Slobodan Milosevic. Why should they? And Djindjic
took the very difficult and probably illegal position, `Let's get rid of the
guy 'cause we need the money.'

GROSS: So implicit in all of this, they felt was if you want aid from the
West, send Milosevic to The Hague.

Mr. ERLANGER: Oh, I think it was pretty explicit.

GROSS: Pretty explicit.

Mr. ERLANGER: I mean, the United States, in its talks with Kostunica, had
said, `You need to send somebody.' They didn't necessarily specify Milosevic.
But Colin Powell had made it very clear to Djindjic through the American
ambassador in Belgrade, Bill Montgomery, that Milosevic was going to have to
come pretty soon. And even Kostunica understood that. I mean, Kostunica was
willing to let it happen, but wanted a legal basis on which to actually do it.
So that was the reason that he objected so strongly at this last moment to
Milosevic's handover. He said it was done in violation of all Yugoslav laws.
And being done just before the donors' conference kind of stank of servility.

GROSS: When Milosevic was arrested, he was told that he would get a fair
trial in Serbia and that his arrest wasn't a pretext for transfer to the
international tribunal, so...

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's absolutely right.

GROSS: ...in that sense they didn't tell him the truth.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, that's absolutely right. And, in fact, Milosevic had
been given a paper signed by both Djindjic and Kostunica saying that he would
not be handed over to The Hague. He took that to understand he wouldn't be
handed over, period. They now, Djindjic especially, says, well, that was just
at the time, and again, you know, you can judge this as you like. I mean,
Milosevic, you know--telling the truth to Slobodan Milosevic may not be the
greatest virtue.

GROSS: When Milosevic was arrested in the presidential residence, there
were--correct me if I'm wrong--20 armed bodyguards, 30 automatic rifles, three
machine guns, one rocket launcher, 30 grenade launchers, 10 cases of
ammunition, 23 pistols, two cases of hand grenades. Did people suspect that
there was that much ammunition and guns in his home?

Mr. ERLANGER: Yes, which was one of the reasons why they were so worried
about trying to arrest him. You see, at first, you know, Djindjic and the
government didn't tell Kostunica about this one either; Djindjic was out of
the country then. And at first, they tried to infiltrate the army guard at
the residence and the police guard, so that when they actually came to get
Milosevic, the army and police would help them make the arrest. But they
botched that, it became public, and people went on the radio and said, `We
believe there's an effort to arrest Milosevic.' So Milosevic's supporters
flocked to this house and created a cordon around it.

And after this botched effort, there was another one in the middle of the
night to try to break through a wall, but by this point a lot of the
supporters had weapons. Milosevic had his own loyal bodyguards anyway, some
of them professional, a number of them not. So by the time the next morning
rolled around, it was pretty clear that, one, they needed Kostunica's help,
which he was willing to give them to get this done--his political help and,
two, they would have to negotiate an end to this. And Milosevic, in the end,
agreed to surrender, as we've said before, given promises that were later
proved to be hollow. But, you know, they did get him to surrender without any
loss of life.

GROSS: Is it very controversial in Serbia that Milosevic was handed over to
the international tribunal in The Hague?

Mr. ERLANGER: It is controversial, but I don't think it's a death knell. I
mean, the people of Serbia got sick of Milosevic a long time ago. They voted
overwhelmingly last autumn to throw him out of office. They rose up in the
streets when he tried to overturn that election in October. They voted again
against him and his party to put democrats into the Serbian Parliament in
December. So they have no love for him, and I think particularly as evidence
began to mount that Kosovar Albanian bodies were brought to Serbia and buried
in mass graves that there really was substance to these issues of war crimes
against Milosevic.

Most Serbs, being very realistic people, said to themselves, `I want to eat.
I don't care about this guy. This guy has screwed up our lives for over a
decade. Why should he continue to do so from jail? Let's get rid of him.'
So I think what Djindjic did had a lot of support, particularly among young
people and middle-class people and urban people.

But about a third of Serbs voted for Milosevic, about a third of Serbs, maybe
less now--at least a quarter, let's say--still regard him as a hero, as a sort
of martyr who's suffering for his effort to defend Serb interests and Serb
holy land in Kosovo. And the way he was transferred, I believe, will sow
difficult seeds for democracy in Serbia in the future, and it will raise
questions--I think it does raise questions--about whether it's good for the
West to be undermining fragile democratic institutions and legal institutions
in a country just to get Milosevic into The Hague a few weeks before he would
have come anyway.

I mean, that really is a serious question. That is sort of what we did when
Milosevic was in power. We needed him for the Dayton Accord so that when the
democratic opposition, which finally overthrew him last year, rose against him
in '95, '96, '97, we did not help them. We supported him implicitly. We only
turned against him later. So a lot of people in Serbia have always regarded
Milosevic as America's man, as odd as that sounds to Americans.

And we're doing the same thing, I'm afraid, with Zoran Djindjic. You know, we
wanted Milosevic in The Hague, perhaps to show our taxpayers that all of it
was worthwhile. And to get him into The Hague quickly, we threatened to
withhold aid we know Serbia needs. Fine, on one level that's pressure, but on
the other hand, we were willing to praise as brave Mr. Djindjic's disrespect
for his own country's laws and procedures. And I don't believe the way this
was handled enhances Serbia's sovereignty.

Now I'm not praising, you know, what Milosevic did, don't misunderstand me;
I'm just talking about the way the United States is perceived as acting in the
world. Does it act like a bully? Does it act like an ally? Does it do
anything it wants to get what it wants or not? Those are the questions many
people ask.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger. He covers central Europe and the Balkans
for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Steve Erlanger. He's the bureau chief for central Europe
and the Balkans for The New York Times.

What are some of the things we've learned about Milosevic since the end of the
war?

Mr. ERLANGER: The war in Kosovo?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, we've learned that he's not as good a strategist as the
West always gave him credit for. The reason he fell, the reason he's in The
Hague today, is because he called an election he didn't have to call. There
was nothing in the Yugoslav constitution that said that he had to run in a
direct election. He wanted to. He was misled by his own hubris, by his
advisers, by his desire after the Kosovo war to have his political legitimacy
re-established by a vote in (technical difficulties) misread this very badly.
But if he hadn't changed the constitution, which he did, forcing it through,
called an election, lost it, then tried to ban the vote, he'd be in power in
Serbia today.

GROSS: So what's the next step for the tribunal at The Hague?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, the next step is to try to pull its case together. I'm
not sure Carla Del Ponte thought until, you know, perhaps two weeks before
Milosevic got handed over that there was any real chance that that was gonna
happen. She herself had said after his arrest in Serbia in early April that
she needed a few more months, thank you very much, to put the indictments
together. That was for Bosnia and Croatia. Those still haven't come down
yet. The Kosovo indictment has been broadened a little bit, and it's been
changed to put reference to the NATO bombing of Kosovo from the beginning of
the indictment to the very end of it, I think, partly to make it harder for
Milosevic to argue that this is a case of NATO aggression rather than war
crimes. So I suspect--I mean, the court won't even reconvene until sometime
in August. I really don't expect a case to start till the end of the year.

In the meantime, it is worth saying that I believe The Hague tribunal will
bend over backwards to try to give Milosevic a fair trial. It probably will
bend over a lot farther than the Serbs would have done had he been tried at
home, because the judges at The Hague will see it important to their
credibility to give him at least the benefit of legal doubt. Well, I think
Serb judges would have judged that they'd been better off convicting him no
matter what.

I think he will be convicted. I think there will be enough evidence. But on
what charges, how strong the evidence will be, we really have no idea. The
prosecutor has simply not shared what she has with the world, so we really
don't know.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Erlanger. He's the bureau chief for central Europe
and the Balkans for The New York Times.

In Macedonia, ethnic Albanians and Slavs have been fighting. A cease-fire was
signed last week. What do the ethnic Albanians want?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, the ethnic Albanians, who make up about a third of
Macedonia, as best one can tell, feel they've been treated as second-class
citizens in a state that puts prominence to Macedonian Slavs. They want
recognition of the Albanian language as a full state language. They want more
local autonomy in their regions of the country, which are predominantly ethnic
Albanian. They want better education in the Albanian language, particularly
higher education. They want an internationally sponsored census. And now it
seems they want more of a kind of federated Macedonia, which for Macedonian
Slavs, for many of them, is a slippery slope to separation and division and
the end of the state.

So we have a very, very delicate inter-ethnic conflict in Macedonia, which is
sponsored and supported and to some degree supplied from Kosovo which, after
all, is wholly ruled by NATO and the West. NATO and the West are trying to
make sure Macedonia doesn't fall apart. Ironically, it was the one part of
the former Yugoslavia that had been spared the violence of the breakup of that
country. It has been spared no longer, and it does threaten a lot of
stability now in the Balkans, and it threatens the reputation of the EU and of
the new Bush administration for dealing promptly and appropriately with
another Balkan problem before it gets out of control.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger. He covers central Europe and the Balkans
for The New York Times. We've been discussing the cease-fire in Macedonia and
the trial of the former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic. We'll talk
with Steven Erlanger about his experiences covering the wars in the Balkans
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Steven Erlanger. He's The New York Times bureau chief for
the Balkans and central Europe.

Now, Steve, you're about to take on a new position with The New York Times,
that of Berlin bureau chief. So maybe we could just spend a couple of minutes
looking back on your years covering the Balkans. And how many years has that
been?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, it's basically been just about three. I arrived in the
Balkans just in time for the Racak massacre in January of '99, and that was
the massacre that woke the United States and the West up to the fact that
Kosovo wasn't going to hold together and led to the failed Rambouillet talks
and in March of that same year (technical difficulties) arrived in January and
was in Belgrade in March for the war and stayed in Serbia and Kosovo through
the war until July of that year. And then kept a deep interest in the story,
both in Serbia and in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia ever since.

In the meantime, I did try to do some work in Poland and Hungary and the Czech
Republic and other parts of central Europe, but there's no question my time
was very much defined by this Balkan war, by the involvement of the West, by
the fight against Milosevic, by Milosevic's defeat, by the Serbs rising up
against him, the restoration of a more broad democracy in Serbia and its
various challenges. So with Milosevic now in The Hague, it feels like a good
ending moment for this particular tour.

GROSS: What was the most horrifying thing you witnessed while covering the
Balkans?

Mr. ERLANGER: Two things that are similar, and both involve finding myself
walking, as a journalist, on the blown-apart remains of other human beings.
Human flesh doesn't withstand explosives very well. Once in Kosovo itself,
when a column of Kosovo Albanians had been attacked by error by NATO war
planes, and once in Serbia itself when, again by error, NATO bombed a
passenger train going over a bridge. And I arrived at the scene in time to
see corpses burning and to watch that horror, really, against the backdrop of
a very pretty spring day with flowers on the hillside and the stench of
burning flesh.

That was perhaps matched, you know, by going into Racak in January of '99 with
bodies laid out in the mosque there who'd been killed, Albanians killed in
Racak, and going back a week later and the bodies had been laid on plastic in
the mosque and there was still blood all over the plastic of the floor of the
mosque and the blood was still bright red, even a week later, because it was
so cold the blood had frozen. It hadn't yet oxidized.

GROSS: Did the fact that you had to step on human remains make it into your
New York Times stories?

Mr. ERLANGER: I believe certainly not as explicitly as that, but I wrote a
very explicit story about the train ride, about the bombing of the passenger
train and The Times, to its credit, let it run. I think I had wrote it with a
great deal of discretion and stuck to the facts, but people told me that it
was very moving. I still remember the lead of it, for which I'm quite proud,
which was: No one knew the names of the dead.

GROSS: What were the most difficult decisions you had to make in deciding how
to write about that story?

Mr. ERLANGER: You know, there's always a line between describing what's in
front of you and overdoing it. I think bad writing tends to be overwriting.
I try not to do that. I mean, I think as best as possible, you lay out in
front of people what you see. Obviously, you're always putting it into a
context, you know. You're putting in quotes. Everything has a political
context. The day has a news context. The war is a context. What was said in
NATO about this event has to be in the story. I mean, there are different
points of view.

But I think, you know, there has to be a way--and I worked very hard to try to
do it--to bring war home to people reading their newspapers, particularly when
their own country is at war, and to make the victims of that war who, in this
case, were ordinary civilians, or in the case of the Kosovar Albanians, the
victims of the whole war in general, as real and as human to your readers as
their own compatriots who are flying the planes and, you know, doing what they
think is best for the interests of justice and the interests of the United
States and other Western countries.

In other words, you know, victims need an advocate, but you can't be an
advocate. You simply have to try to bring home to people the effect of the
war on those who don't design the war. You know, the people on that train
were just going from one place to another. They may have voted for Milosevic,
maybe they didn't. They weren't living in Kosovo. They didn't hurt any
Albanians so far as we know. They were just random victims of a larger war,
and their lives have value, too.

And I just think, you know, war from 15,000 feet, which was the way the
bombing was done, it all can seem very clinical. After all, this war was not
really a war to most Americans. It was a police action done from the sky.
The Clinton administration made it very clear from the beginning, no ground
troops were to be used, and yet the rhetoric of the war was that, you know, we
were fighting the Hitler of the Balkans who was committing genocide in
(technical difficulties) was two things.

One, that if that were true, then surely fighting this Hitler of the Balkans
must be worth one American life on the ground, and two, as a journalist, you
can't choose your moments, but I was in Serbia for the war. I was in Kosovo
for, during and after the war. It was my job to try to represent as best as
possible, not just what was going on in that country, which was the enemy of
my country, but also to try to represent as best as I could the political
views of that country, because it was very important, I thought, to a full
picture for our readers of what was happening. Now all that sounds very
pompous, but I don't know how to make it sound less pompous. That's what we
do.

GROSS: Well, Steve Erlanger, I want to thank you so much for talking with us,
and I wish you good luck in your new position as Berlin bureau chief for The
New York Times. Thank you.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Steven Erlanger, recorded yesterday from Prague. He's moving to
Berlin today to become The New York Times' Berlin bureau chief.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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