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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 14:41 GMT
The Hague looms over the Balkans
Wanted posters for Radovan Karadzic (right) and Ratko Mladic
Karadzic and Mladic top the Balkans' most wanted list
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By the BBC's Bill Hayton

From Croatia, where the coalition government is ridden by splits, to Macedonia where war crimes charges may be yet be brought, the international tribunal in The Hague is casting a long shadow over the Balkans.

Drazen Budisa
Budisa quit Croatia's cabinet in protest over extraditions
The issue is becoming ever more critical for domestic politics in the countries concerned, as a number of different deadlines approach.

In Yugoslavia the deadline is the end of March - the authorities are under huge pressure to hand over further war crimes suspects, and face a US-imposed veto on international aid if they fail to comply.

As the tension mounts, so does the personal rivalry between Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic - who favours full co-operation with the tribunal - and Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who accuses it of anti-Serb bias.

Early election risk

There are thought to be about a dozen war crimes suspects in the country, including the former Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, who is thought to be living under the protection of senior members of the Yugoslav army.

There is one suspect, however, that Mr Djindjic is not keen to see transferred - the current president of Serbia, Milan Milutinovic, a former member of Mr Milosevic's inner circle who was indicted for war crimes in Kosovo.

The Yugoslav President, Vojislav Kostunica
Kostunica opposes further transfers

Mr Milutinovic's departure would trigger early presidential elections and probably bring down Mr Djindjic's government - and that would be particularly unwelcome at a time when the whole future of Yugoslavia is in question.

The government in Montenegro, the smaller of its two republics, has long wanted to break away from its larger neighbour.

The Montenegrin opposition, however, want the two to remain united.

Croatian strain

But the opposition holds the balance of power in the federal parliament, and so far it has blocked legislation which would allow Yugoslavia to extradite war criminals.

The debate over the two issues has become intertwined - and the price of the continued existence of the federation may be a deal on the extradition of suspected war criminals.

Croatia's five-party coalition government is under severe strain, as the chairman of the Social Liberal Party, Drazen Budisa, seeks responsibility for relations with the International war crimes tribunal.

It is clear his intention is not to improve those relations.

Last July he resigned from the government in protest at its decision to extradite two generals indicted of war crimes.

Pressure on Bosnia

But it is in Bosnia that the shadow of the Hague falls most heavily.

ethnic Albanian fighter in Macedonia
Investigations could re-open old wounds in Macedonia

The continuing efforts to arrest suspects, most notably the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, is stirring up passions in the entity he helped to create, Republika Srpska.

And Bosnia too faces a deadline. New constitutional arrangements giving Croats, Muslims and Serbs equal rights across the whole country must be put in place by the end of the month, if this autumn's general election is to go ahead as planned.

As these changes could undermine the raison d'etre of the Republika Srpska, it's not surprising that nationalists are opposing them, and the elections as well.

Macedonia's old wounds

In Macedonia, the last of the former Yugoslav republics to experience fighting, two ongoing investigations by the war crimes tribunal threaten to re-open some old wounds.

It is exactly a year since the country appeared to be on the brink of full-scale civil war.

But since the summer a peace process forcefully backed by the EU and Nato has prevented further conflict - and the last element of the plan, an amnesty law, has now been passed by the parliament.

The law will free all those accused of crimes in connection with the fighting - including high treason, mutiny, armed rebellion and conspiracy against the state.

However, it specifically excludes any crimes being investigated by the tribunal in The Hague.

There are two such investigations going on at the moment - one into actions by the rebels, the other into alleged abuses by government forces.

Just when the dust had appeared to be settling, these inquiries could start to stir up resentment all over again.

See also:

05 Sep 01 | Europe
The Hague's wanted men
06 Mar 02 | Europe
Milosevic denied release request
01 Mar 02 | Americas
US wants no permanent tribunals
25 Feb 02 | Media reports
Serbian press split on Milosevic trial
19 Feb 02 | Europe
Kostunica attacks Milosevic trial
18 Feb 02 | Europe
Milosevic defence transcript
19 Feb 02 | Europe
The Milosevic case: Timeline
22 Feb 02 | Europe
Milosevic surprises prosecution
28 Feb 02 | Europe
The race to catch Karadzic
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