Slobodan “The Butcher of the Balkans” Milosevic has passed from this mortal coil. He had been jailed and was on trial in The Hague for crimes against humanity not limited to instigating wholesale genocide throughout the former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. There were 66 charges against him and his was Europe's most significant war crimes case since the Nazi trials at Nuremburg after the Second World War.
At the time of this writing, it is unclear as to the exact cause of Milosevic’s death despite his known health concerns. His heart problems and high blood pressure were thought not to be serious enough to warrant allowing him out for treatment – and certainly not to travel to Russia for medical help as he had insisted upon only last month. A Tribunal spokesperson is reported to have said that there is no indication that he committed suicide. Milosevic’s legal counsel told reporters that his client had feared he was being poisoned. A request to have the autopsy done in Russia has been rejected.
Questions were already being raised as to why Milosevic’s trial was taking so long to come to a resolution. The trial began in February 2002. The proceedings at Nuremburg took a total of one year from beginning to end.
Milosevic is the latest in a series of Balkan criminals to have not lived long enough to be sentenced in The Hague for their war crimes. His death was the second in a week after the suicide of former rebel Croatian Serb leader Milan Babic – one of Milosevic’s right-hand men during the Balkan war but who turned against his former mentor and delivered damning evidence about the atrocities Milosevic mandated during the war saying that Milosevic had shamed the Serbian people. The Hague Tribunal now faces questions over monitoring of inmates at its detention centre as world leaders and Balkan victims and their families voice considerable outrage at being robbed of justice yet again.
While there are many who will not mourn his passing; there are just as many nationalists who will. For them Milosevic fought to protect Serbian interests, identity and nationhood. But as author Asne Seierstad seems to suggest in her book “With Their Backs to the World – Portraits from Serbia” – some in the former Yugoslavia recognise that Milosevic acted for what he himself said at one time were Yugoslav interests. There is a big difference between the two. The wise man knows that the wars that tore Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo apart as Yugoslavia imploded served neither.
In the end Milosevic said he acted to defend Serbs; there are those that believe that behind his never-ending game of smoke and mirrors the real goal was to keep power at any cost. Milosevic thrust Serbia into the limelight on the world stage in the worst way possible. In the process his people have become saddled with the reputation as mindless, bloodthirsty thugs consumed by virulent nationalism.
Mastery of political allies and foes alike gave him a supreme grip on power for years under an illusion of democracy. The truth of his beliefs came to light when he used systematic apartheid to "protect" Serbs from Albanians in 1989. In the Croatian and Bosnian wars from 1991 to 1995 were waged under the banner of nationalism. Like many a dictator before him, he left the dirty work to others – in this case Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic both of whom he threw to his Western enemies when they became albatrosses around his ruthlessly ambitious and decidedly arrogant neck. Both are still on the run in the Balkans – believed to be hidden by hard-line nationalists in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. The clarion call has stepped up by the Tribunal for them to be caught and brought to The Hague to answer for Milosevic’s war crimes.
As Seierstad points out, the Tribunal only exists because of the seeming unwillingness of the individual Balkan States to put their own war criminals on trial. It is always the ‘other guy’s’ fault and everyone lays claim to the excuse that they were ‘only defending’ themselves. Until the Balks faces its own demons, subject to the approval of the West, Serbia’s proposed membership to the EU lies in tatters.
Like many before him obsessed and deluded about the true nature of their power, Milosevic misunderstand the West’s notion of him as a ‘peacemaker’ (in actuality he was just another pawn) and seriously misjudged his own people and his own seeming Manifest Destiny. In her book Seierstad recounts how he lost his bid for an unprecedented second term in 2000 as Yugoslav President. He was finally taken off his lofty perch that year by nothing less than a revolt of his own people in the streets of Belgrade. Six months later, after a 36-hour siege of his Belgrade villa-cum-fortress, Milosevic finally surrendered and was taken to prison, ironically in the early hours of April 1st – April Fool’s Day.
The waters of Balkan nationalism have always been more than a bit muddy. And many Serbs still see Milosevic as being their voice against the oppression of the West (the EU, US & UK, NATO) and, of course, the other denizens of the former Yugoslav republic. Hard-line Serbian nationalists said he should be buried in the national heroes' cemetery. These same followers have long accused ‘the West’ of scheming to frame the man they insist is innocent of any wrong-doing despite any evidence that suggests otherwise. This glorification comes at a heavy price of the crushing defeats of the four wars instigated by Milosevic over the course of a decade – wars that devastated the economic success and multicultural progressiveness that had been made by Yugoslavia and particularly in the aftermath of the XIV Winter Olympic Games at Sarajevo in 1984.
Even on trial, Milosevic remained compulsively defiant and arrogant as ever. He toyed with prosecutors and expert witnesses alike in stubbornly conducting his own case. His disdain for all was clear to see and he wore it like a badge of honour. He was dismissive of everything the UN and the war crimes tribunal stood for – and it has forever endeared him to his supporters.
There were but a few short weeks remaining until the completion of Milosevic’s trial. The chief UN war crimes prosecutor has said that there was enough evidence for the former dictator and war criminal to have been found guilty. In an interview given with an Italian newspaper, she suggested that the proceedings would have summarised with a condemnation and sentencing would have been for life imprisonment.
Milosevic will be a martyr for what some of his countrymen still believe is a righteous cause long after his death. The Siege of Sarajevo and the massacre in the UN “safe area” of Srebrenica are but one part of his epitaph.
Slobodan Milosevic’s death is a severe defeat not only for the UN, but for those of us who wanted a reliable, definitive historical accounting of the Balkan wars.