The Bulgarians arrested Agim Ceku last week! But then, after a couple of days, they let him go. Serbia is upset.
Who is Agim Ceku, and why should you care?
Well, Agim Ceku is a very important Kosovar Albanian. He was an officer in the Yugoslav army and then, after 1991, he was a commander in the Croatian Army during their war against the Serbs. Then, after that, he was chief of staff of the Kosovar Liberation Army during the 1999 Kosovo War. Later, he was Prime Minister of Kosovo. He’s sort of retired now, or at least politically in eclipse, but he’s still one of the most important political figures in Kosovo.
The Serbs say he’s a war criminal. They have indictments against him for various horrible acts, including genocide. They tried him in absentia for some of them, back in 2002, and convicted him to 20 years in prison. They’ve managed to get an Interpol warrant for his arrest. So, Interpol member states are supposed to assist in capturing Ceku and, if necessary, extradite him to Serbia.
There have been several attempts to do this. None have yet succeeded. The most recent was last week, when Ceku visited Bulgaria. He was stopped at the border, then detained, while a Bulgarian court considered whether to hand him over to Serbia. After a couple of days the Bulgarians decided no, they weren’t going to do that, and Ceku went free. The Serbian government has expressed outrage, outrage! Ceku is still in Bulgaria but should be heading back to Serbia soon.
So why should anyone care?
Well… if you’re not really interested in Balkan politics, perhaps you shouldn’t! But the Ceku case does provide some interesting insights into how Balkan governments paint themselves into corners.
Let’s try this FAQ-style.
Is Agim Ceku a war criminal? — Quite possibly. The war in Croatia was bad; the war in Kosovo was even worse. Both of these were dirty struggles between rival ethnic groups who’d learned to loathe and fear each other. Massacres, terrorist bombings, ethnic cleansing, looting, rape — Serbs massacring whole clans of Albanians, Albanians machine-gunning cafes full of Serbs — it was a bad business all around.
Ceku was a commander in Operation Storm — which led to the ethnic cleansing of a couple of hundred thousand Serbs — and then was a senior KLA commander. I suppose it’s theoretically possible that he could have kept his hands perfectly clean. But, really, it’s not the way to bet. It’s very likely he’s guilty.
What are the chances of convicting him for these crimes? — In a fair trial? Pretty low.
See, most of the witnesses who could prove his guilt? Are Albanian. This means that most of them will be very, very unwilling to testify against him. And even if some might, they’d be subject to — at the least — threats and harassment. So, you could gather a lot of circumstantial evidence easily enough. But proof of guilt to a legal standard? Very hard.
The ICTY tried to do exactly this when it tried Ramush Haradinaj, another senior KLA commander. They made a sincere effort… and failed; they just couldn’t gather enough credible, damning information to prove their case. In which context, it must be noted that the ICTY was considering an indictment against Ceku for years. They never did it, because the case would have been even harder to prove than the one against Haradinaj.
Could Ceku get a fair trial in Serbia? — Very probably not. Serbia’s judiciary is still pretty feeble. And a jury trial… well, for the last ten years Serb media and government statements have been demonizing the KLA leadership as complete monsters: terrorists, drug dealers, rapists, torturers, vivisectors, pimps, genocidaires. Ceku stands at the center of not one but two of the greatest traumas of recent Serbian history: Operation Storm, the crushing defeat of the Serbs in Croatia, and the Kosovo War four years later. Even ten years later, it would be really hard for Serb institutions to treat him fairly.
What about that trial in 2002? — That’s not to be taken seriously. It was show trial, with no witnesses or evidence presented for the defense. The government of Prime Minister Djindjic was suffering from very low approval ratings, and was trying to prove its nationalist credentials. The District Court in Nish paraded some Serbian refugees in front of the cameras and then “convicted” Ceku, sentencing him to 20 years.
Of course, the idiocy of this process doesn’t make Ceku any less guilty. But it does make it difficult for any Serb government to alter their position on him, since he’s already been formally convicted.
So why wouldn’t the Bulgarians hand him over? They gave various reasons. One was that there wasn’t enough of a factual basis for the warrant. That’s dubious; member countries aren’t really supposed to consider that. (Otherwise, every warrant would be subject to review by every country.) Another was that he had diplomatic immunity. That’s dubious too; he entered Bulgaria as a private person, and his “diplomatic” status was granted by the Kosovar government after his arrest.
The Serbs say it was because the United States put pressure on Bulgaria. This is possible, but unlikely. Now that Kosovo is independent, the US isn’t much worried about Agim Ceku — Kosovo has a rising generation of new politicians, and he’s no longer one of the two or three indispensables.
It seems more likely that Bulgaria let him go because (1) they didn’t want to disrupt relations with Kosovo, and (2) they knew that handing him over to Serbia would be a disaster for all concerned.
A disaster? How so? — Think it through. The capture of Ceku would be huge, immense news inside Serbia, and would capture international attention as well. Serbia would have to put him on trial. (The 2002 trial was so one-sided that it couldn’t be used as a basis for imprisoning him. Anyway, public opinion would demand it!)
Now, pretty much everyone in Serbia is absolutely, morally certain that Ceku is a monster in human form. A trial that ended without a conviction would be a political disaster, quite possibly bringing down the government. On the other hand, a fair trial would probably result in an acquittal. Ceku is probably guilty of some major crimes, but it would probably be impossible to prove this. So basically the government would have to either play fair, acquit, and suffer a massive backblast of public outrage; or cheat, convict him, and suffer broad international condemnation.
Further: putting Ceku on trial would rip open a lot of painful wounds from recent history. Serbia’s current government is not really interested in wound-ripping. (Unlike its last government! But that’s another story.)
And further: it would enrage the Kosovar Albanians and crash the tentative, fragile, and mostly unspoken accord between Prishtina and Belgrade. I don’t think the current government in Prishtina would be quite dumb enough to take revenge on the local Serbs. But I don’t think it’s inconceivable, either. The Tadic government in Belgrade has a pretty clear strategy on Kosovo: keep cool, allow a modest amount of cooperation with the Albanian authorities (without ever conceding that they actually are authorities, mind), protect the Serb minority in Kosovo as much as possible, and try for a legal win at the International Court of Justice. Catching Ceku would be completely disruptive to this.
So then, why are they trying to catch him? — I’m not sure they are, actually.
Oh, they say they are. And every time he walks away from that Interpol warrant — in Slovenia, in Hungary, in Colombia, and now in Bulgaria — they wave their hands in the air and yell about how this is discrimination against Serbia and an outrage against justice, und so weiter.
But they’re not stupid. They can well imagine the consequences if someone were to actually turn him over. So, I strongly suspect that, behind the scenes, they’re not pushing too hard.
Well then, what happens? — Probably nothing. Ceku will continue with his life. He’ll probably be arrested again, but it seems very unlikely anyone will extradite him to Serbia.
So, will Serbia drop the warrant? — Are you kidding? Drop their totally righteous indictment against one of the greatest mass murderers of the age? I don’t think so.
But… — No Serbian government, now or in the next twenty years, will be able to drop that warrant. You know how no Greek government has been able to drop the whole Macedonia name thing, even though everyone outside of Greece knows it’s completely moronic? Well, this is actually much less stupid than that, and quite a bit more painful. So that warrant won’t lapse until either (1) Serbia and Kosovo reach some sort of general settlement — possible, but not for many years to come — or, more likely (2) Agim Ceku dies of old age.
So, we can probably expect “Ceku arrested in [name of country] / Ceku released / Serbia protests!” stories for a while to come.