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Srdja Trifkovic, Ph.D. | Columns | Serbianna.com A Mysterious Death at The Hague
By Srdja Trifkovic
 
March 24, 2006 -- The mainstream Western media coverage of the death of Slobodan Milosevic, while predictably relentless in its clichés (the “Butcher of the Balkans,” guilty of “starting three wars” and ordering ethnic cleansing and genocide in his pursuit of a “greater Serbia,” etc.), has ignored the unresolved mystery surrounding the event itself. Having spent a week in Belgrade talking to a score of well-placed individuals at different ends of the political spectrum, I can present to our readers the facts of the case that are deemed unfit to print by their Gannett, Tribune, NYT, or Knight Ridder outlets.

Milosevic was found dead in his cell at the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) detention unit near The Hague on Saturday, March 11, at 10:05 in the morning. His death came less than a week after another indicted Serb—the former President of the Krajina Serb Republic Milan Babic—hanged himself in another wing of the same UN detention facility. It also came a week after the Tribunal formally rejected his petition for temporary leave to travel to Moscow for medical treatment.

Far more remarkably, Milosevic’s death came a day after he wrote a letter in longhand to the Russian foreign ministry, warning foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that his life was in danger:

“[T]he persistence with which the medical treatment in Russia was denied, in the first place is motivated by the fear that through careful examination it would be discovered that active, willful steps were taken to destroy my health throughout the proceedings of the trial, which could not be hidden from Russian specialists . . . [O]n January 12th (i.e., two months ago), an extremely strong drug was found in my blood, which is used, as they themselves say, for the treatment of tuberculosis and leprosy, although I never used any kind of antibiotic during these five years that I’ve been in their prison. Throughout this whole period, neither have I had any kind of infectious illness (apart from flu). Also the fact that doctors needed 2 months [to report this fact to me] cannot have any other explanation than we are facing manipulation... [by] those from which I defended my country in times of war and who have an interest to silence me... , I am addressing you in expectation that you help me defend my health from the criminal activities in this institution, working under the sign of the U.N...”

Within hours after Milosevic’s death was announced, his legal advisor Zdenko Tomanovic filed an official request to the Tribunal to have the autopsy carried out in Moscow, “having in mind his claims yesterday that he was being poisoned in the jail.” This was rejected by the Tribunal and an autopsy was carried out by a Dutch team, in the presence of Russian and Serbian doctors. No overt signs of poisoning were found, but the head of the Bakulev Cardiovascular Surgery Centre, Academician Leo Bokeria, who attended the autopsy, said that the medicines given to Milosevic might have exacerbated the situation: “We indicated how the patient could be cured, but no steps were taken… We warned for more than two years that something might happen to the patient, but the leadership of the tribunal avoided facing this.” Russian diplomats at the UN described the report from The Hague as “disturbing” and demanded a full report from the UN Secretariat.

Suspicions of foul play were fuelled by the ICTY chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte’s strange demeanor in the immediate aftermath of Milosevic’s death. She appeared almost gleeful on March 12 when she declared that Milosevic’s death may have been a suicide, and speculated that he might have wanted to thwart the impending guilty verdict in his trial. The theme of “Milosevic cheating justice” was duly picked up by the media pack and establishment politicians and repeated thousands of times, creating the impression that the trial was going well for the prosecution.

Anyone who had met Milosevic at The Hague—myself included—knew that del Ponte’s speculation was absurd. He was conducting his defense effectively and at times brilliantly, and he was positively looking forward to the rest of the trial—not because he expected a “not guilty” verdict (no such luck at The Hague), but because he believed that he was contributing to setting the record of history straight.

Canada’s former ambassador in Belgrade James Bissett was one of the last defense witnesses to see Milosevic alive. He told me in Belgrade earlier this week that, in the course of their long meetings on February 21 and 22, Milosevic struck him as the man least likely to contemplate suicide at the ICTY, the prosecution team included:

“He was perfectly relaxed, not in the least depressed, and seemed to be in a good health. He was busy trying to prepare for my testimony and he struck me as being content with the way the trial was going. The following day, however, around five o’clock—after we’d worked for 2 or 3 hours—he suddenly became flushed in the face and clasped his hands to his head. I was startled and asked if he was all right. He answered that he was OK and explained that although his blood pressure was under control, he had these constant ringing and echoing sounds in his head. This was caused, he said, by a problem with an artery in his ear. He complained about it before to the Dutch doctors who simply said it was psychological. But after increasing demands they gave him a MRI test and found that indeed he was right there was a problem with the artery in his ear. Artery had a “loop” in it and to correct it, surgery would be necessary. That is why he wanted to go to Moscow to a clinic that specializes in this type of ailment, but the Tribunal refused it.”

Bissett was especially sorry to hear of Milosevic’s death because it means that the historical record that he had wanted to set down during his trial will be incomplete: now we are not going to hear the Milosevic’s story but only the media spin, as all of the evidence in his favor has been censored:

“He knew his material. He has done a very good job of cross-examining the prosecution witnesses and destroying many of them who appeared before the Tribunal. He has discounted much of the case against him but the public hears none of this because there seems to be a deliberate news blackout on anything recorded in his favor . . . There is a sense of relief at The Hague, because the Tribunal was having a very hard time bringing forth any hard evidence to prove that there was genocide in Kosovo or that Milosevic entered into the criminal conspiracy to establish a ‘Greater Serbia.’ Nevertheless they would have found him guilty. He was under no illusion about that but he wanted to put the facts on the historical record. Unfortunately this is no longer possible and so it will be NATO’s interpretation of events that the world will have.”

According to the former Yugoslav foreign minister Zivadin Jovanovic, who served at the time of the NATO bombing, the issue is not so much whether Milosevic was poisoned, as many Serbs still believe, but whether his death was made more likely by the Tribunal’s willful negligence. He and his colleagues from the Belgrade Forum, an NGO critical of the ICTY, note that there has been no serious attempt by any major Western media outlet to examine the facts of the case, and ask who exactly stood to profit from his death.

The suspicion of deliberate negligence is shared by many Serbs who had never been sympathetic to Milosevic, politically and personally. They complain that Western journalists have accepted a tad too blithely the Tribunal’s claim that Milosevic was illicitly taking powerful antibiotics that had neutralized his blood pressure medication, allegedly in order to create the impression that the therapy ordered by Dutch doctors was ineffective and that therefore he should be allowed to travel to Moscow for treatment. Even if Milosevic had been willing to risk his life by taking a powerful antibiotic, Rifanticin, which would have rendered blood pressure medication useless, the claim is unconvincing for three reasons:

1. Milosevic’s very public alarm about the antibiotic’s traces, evident in his letter to Lavrov, does not tally with his allegedly illicit scheme to self-medicate the drug;

2. Milosevic’s premises were under surveillance and subject to detailed searches;

3. All visitors and their possessions (briefcases, papers) are subjected to a thorough search by the detention unit staff.

As for the assertion that Milosevic “escaped justice,” impartial observers were of the opinion that Carla del Ponte was the one losing the legal battle. The charges against Milosevic—genocide, crimes against humanity, “joint criminal conspiracy” to create a “Greater Serbia”—have always been political, and they are collective by definition. They remain unproven and, by the standards of any normal court in a normal country, would have been deemed discredited by now. Neil Clark, who used to cover the ICTY for the Guardian, noted that “not only has the prosecution signally failed to prove Milosevic’s personal responsibility for atrocities committed on the ground, the nature and extent of the atrocities themselves has also been called into question.” In the worst single atrocity ascribed to Milosevic’s ultimate responsibility, that in Srebrnica in July 1995, Clark says that del Ponte and her team “produced nothing to challenge the verdict of the five-year inquiry commissioned by the Dutch government—that there was ‘no proof that orders for the slaughter came from Serb political leaders in Belgrade.’” John Laughland noted that the trial had heard more than a hundred prosecution witnesses by late last year, “and not a single one has testified that Milosevic ordered war crimes.” In Julia Gorin’s view, an attempt to create an Islamic “Greater Albania” was confused with one to create a “Greater Serbia”:

“Surely if the latter were Slobodan Milosevic’s goal, he would have started by ethnically cleansing the nearly 300,000 Muslims of Serbia. Though he built his career in whatever dirty ways Tito’s Yugoslavia allowed, he was the least of the Balkans’ villains. For most Serbs, he was not a hero until he was called upon to defend an entire nation at The Hague. Now that Milosevic is dead, we are spared the worldwide riots that would have ensued had the tribunal mustered the courage to issue a verdict based on the evidence. And we can all sleep comfortably as the disproved charges are accepted as history.”

The circumstances surrounding Milosevic’s death will be brought to light sooner or later, and the verdict will not be to the credit of the “international community” or the concept of transnational justice. He was guilty of many sins and errors, but they were a matter between him and his people. The Hague was the wrong court trying to find him guilty of the wrong crimes, and it has always been motivated by all the wrong reasons.

The verdict of history on Milosevic himself will be ambiguous because there had been more than one “Milosevic” in his 64 years (1941-2006). His career can be divided into four periods of unequal duration and significance. The first, from his birth in 1941 until his meteoric rise to power in Serbia in early 1987, was the longest and the least interesting. The only unusual element in his early biography was the suicide of both his parents, who had separated when he was a child. At 24 he married his only sweetheart, Mirjana Markovic, illegitimate daughter of a high-ranking communist official. She was neurotic, uncompromisingly hard-Left in her politics, ambitious, and able to dominate “her Sloba” until the very end. Unstable to the point of clinical insanity, more than any other person she had contributed to his serious errors of judgment and eventual loss of popularity and power base.

To all appearances, until 1987 Milosevic was an unremarkable apparatchik. His solid Communist Party credentials—he joined the League of Communists as a high school senior in 1959—were essential to his professional advance. After graduating from Belgrade’s school of law in 1964 he held a variety of business administration posts, eventually becoming director of a major bank and, briefly, its representative in New York. By the early 80s he increasingly turned to politics and made his way up the Party ladder by forging alliances and friendships that were pragmatic rather ideological. His name remained relatively unknown outside the ranks of the nomenklatura.

Then came the turning point. As president of the League of Communists of Serbia, in April 1987 Milosevic traveled to the town of Kosovo Polje, in the restive southern Serbian province of Kosovo, to quell the protests by local Serbs who were unhappy with the lack of support they were getting from Belgrade in the face of ethnic Albanian pressure. When the police started dispersing the crowd using batons, Milosevic stopped them and uttered the words that were to change his life and that of a nation. “No one is allowed to beat you people; no one will ever hit you again,” he told the cheering crowd.

Used to two generations of Serbian Communist leaders subservient to Tito and reluctant to advance their republic’s interests lest they be accused of “greater Serbian nationalism,” ordinary Serbs responded with enthusiasm. The word of a new kind of leader spread like wildfire. Milosevic’s populism worked wonders at first, enabling him to eliminate all political opponents within the Party leadership of Serbia at a marathon 30-hour Central Committee session in September 1987. A huge rally in Belgrade’s Confluence Park (1988) and in Kosovo to mark the 600th anniversary of the historic battle (1989), reflected a degree of genuine popularity that he enjoyed in Serbia, Montenegro, and Serbian-inhabited part of Bosnia and Croatia in the late 1980s.

Far from proclaiming an agenda for expansion, as later alleged by his accusers, his speech at Kosovo was full of old ideological clichés and “Yugoslav” platitudes:

“Equal and harmonious relations among Yugoslav peoples are a necessary condition for the existence of Yugoslavia and for it to find its way out of the crisis and, in particular, they are a necessary condition for its economic and social prosperity . . . Internal and external enemies . . . organize their activity against multinational societies mostly by fomenting national conflicts. At this moment, we in Yugoslavia are behaving as if we have never had such an experience.”

The precise nature of his long term agenda was never stated, however, because it had never been defined. He was able to gain followers from widely different camps, including hard-line Party loyalists as well as anti-Communist nationalists, because they all tended to project their hopes, aspirations and fears onto Milosevic—even though those hopes and aspirations were often mutually incompatible.

The key issue was the constitutional framework within which the Serbs should seek their future. They were unhappy by Tito’s arrangements that kept them divided into five units in the old Yugoslav federation. Milosevic wanted to redefine the nature of that federation, rather than abolish it. Then and throughout his life he was a “Yugoslav” rather than a “Greater Serb.” In addition he was so deeply steeped in the Communist legacy of his formative years—and so utterly unable to resist the pressure from his doctrinaire wife—that even after the fall of the Berlin Wall he kept the old insignia with the red star, together with the leadership structure and mindset of the old, Titoist order.

The tensions of this period could have been resolved by a clear strategy once the war broke out, first in Croatia (summer 1991) and then in Bosnia (spring 1992). This did not happen. In the third phase of Milosevic’s career, from mid-1991 until October 5, 2000, a cynically manipulative Mr. Hyde had finally prevailed over the putative national leader Dr. Jekyll. As the fighting raged around Vukovar and Dubrovnik, he made countless contradictory statements about its nature, always stressing that “Serbia is not at war” and thereby implicitly recognizing the validity of Tito’s internal boundaries.

Anticipating the onset of the second stage even before it became fully apparent, and to many raised eyebrows in Washington, I opined that “Milosevic is cynically exploiting the nationalist awakening to perpetuate Communist rule and his own power in the eastern half of Yugoslavia.” (U.S. News & World Report, 18 June 1990), that he “needs outside enemies to halt the erosion of his popularity.” (U.S. News & World Report, 12 November 1990). In the end, for Serb patriots it turned out that “trusting Milosevic is like giving a blood bank to Count Dracula” (the Times of London, 23 November 1995).

By blithely recognizing the secessionist republics within Tito’s boundaries, the “international community” effectively became a combatant in the wars of Yugoslav secession. Its “mediators” accepted a role that was not only subordinate, but also squalid. Lord David Owen, prominent among them, conceded that Tito’s boundaries were arbitrary and should have been redrawn at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration: “to rule out any discussion or opportunity for compromise in order to head off war was an extraordinary decision,” he wrote, “to have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries of the six republics within the former Yugoslavia as being the boundaries for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition itself.” But in all his deeds he and a legion of other mediators nevertheless stuck, unyieldingly, to that formula.

Milosevic’s diplomatic ineptitude and his chronic inability to grasp the importance of lobbying and public relations in Washington and other Western capitals had enabled the secessionists to have a free run of the media scene with the simplistic notion that “the butcher of the Balkans” was overwhelmingly, even exclusively guilty of all the horrors that had befallen the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, far from seeking the completion of a “Greater Serbian” project while he had the military wherewithal to do so (1991-1995), Milosevic attempted to fortify his domestic position in Belgrade by trading in the Western Serbs (Krajina, Bosnia) for Western benevolence. It worked for a while. “The Serbian leader continues to be a necessary diplomatic partner,” the New York Times opined in November 1996, a year after the Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia thanks to Milosevic’s pressure on the Bosnian-Serb leadership. His status as a permanent fixture in the Balkan landscape seemed secure.

It all changed with the escalation of the crisis in Kosovo, however. His belated refusal to sign on yet another dotted line at Rambouillet paved the way for NATO’s illegal bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999. For one last time the Serbs rallied under the leader many of them no longer trusted, aware that the alternative was to accept the country’s open-ended carve-up. For one last time they were let down: Milosevic saved Clinton’s skin by capitulating in June of that year, and letting NATO occupy Kosovo just as the bombing campaign was running out of steam and the Alliance was riddled by discord over what to do next.

The ensuing mass exodus of Kosovo’s quarter-million Serbs and the torching of their homes and churches by the KLA terrorists did not prevent Milosevic from pretending that his superior statesmanship, embodied in the unenforceable UN Security Council Resolution 1244, had saved the country’s integrity. The ensuing reconstruction effort in Serbia was used as a propaganda ploy to improve the rating of his own socialist party of Serbia and his wife Mirjana Markovic’s minuscule “Yugoslav United Left” (JUL).

For many Serbs this was the final straw. Refusing to recognize the change of mood, in mid-2000 Milosevic followed his wife’s advice and called a snap election, hoping to secure his position for another four years. Unexpectedly he was unable to beat his chief challenger Vojislav Kostunica in the first round, and succumbed to a wave of popular protest when he tried to deny Kostunica’s victory in the closely contested runoff.

His downfall on October 5, 2000, followed a failed attempt to steal yet another election. It nevertheless would not have been possible if the military and the security services had not abandoned him. There had been just too many defeats and too many wasted opportunities over the previous decade and a half for the security chiefs to continue trusting Milosevic implicitly. Their refusal to fire on the crowds—as his half-demented wife allegedly demanded on that day—sealed Milosevic’s fate. After five months’ powerless isolation in his suburban villa he was arrested and taken to Belgrade’s central prison. On June 28, 2001, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic arranged for his transfer to The Hague Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, in violation of Serbia’s laws and constitution.

The final four years of Milosevic’s life were spent in prison. During this time a haughty and arrogant know-all of previous years rapidly evolved into a hard-working and efficient lawyer who conducted his own complex defense. He was helped by an indictment that was hastily concocted by del Ponte’s predecessor Louise Arbour at the height of the bombing campaign in May 1999 to serve political, rather than legal purposes.

In preparing his defense Milosevic was initially guided by personal motives. By the end of 2003 or early 2004, however, he came to realize that, regardless of his own destiny, what he was doing had a wider historic significance. He was accused of “genocide,” a crime that places collective stigma on a nation, not just its leader. Furthermore, the accusation of a “joint criminal conspiracy” with the purpose of creating a “Greater Serbia” was expanded by the Tribunal into an attempt to misrepresent two centuries of Serbia’s history as an open-ended quest for aggressive expansion, with Milosevic but the latest link in that chain. As John Laughland wrote in the Spectator last year, even more than the gross abuses of due process which it is committing, the Milosevic trial has shown the futility of trying to submit political decisions to the judgment of criminal law:

“Because it seeks to comprehend war as the result of the decisions of individuals, and not as the consequence of conflict between states, modern international humanitarian law sees trees but no wood. In the Milosevic trial, the role of the other Yugoslav leaders in starting the war especially those who declared secession from Yugoslavia is grossly obscured, as is that of the countless Western politicians and institutions who were intimately involved at every stage of the Yugoslav conflict, and who encouraged the secessions.”

Finally grasping the extent to which his trial was also the trial of the Serbian nation as a whole, Milosevic succeeded for the first time in his life to transcend the limitations of ideology and egotism that had blinkered him for so long. He turned the trial, heralded by the Western media class as a new Nuremberg, into a political embarrassment for “the international community.” His defense, effective and at times brilliant (one prosecutor acknowledged that “there’s no doubt who’s the smartest guy in the courtroom”), finally blended Milosevic’s personal interest with the interest of his people. When I met him at his cell in June 2004 he told me that he may never get out of there, but he was certain his “refutation of [chief prosecutor Carla] del Ponte’s ridiculous indictment would set the record of history straight.”

Milosevic’s death makes that certainty well justified, even if “the record of history” comes too late to alter the unjust and untenable temporary outcome of the wars of Yugoslav succession. It is to be feared that those who had collectively invented a fictional character bearing the name “Slobodan Milosevic” in the 1990s will use the historic man’s death as a welcome opportunity to put the finishing touches on the caricature, and promote it as the final, approved and unalterable likeness.


Srdja Trifkovic
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