Balkan scapegoat

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

Slobodan Milosevic, former President of Serbia, who died in his prison cell in The Hague on March 18. - SRJDAN IlIC/AP

Slobodan Milosevic, former President of Serbia, who died in his prison cell in The Hague on March 18. - SRJDAN IlIC/AP

THE death in solitary confinement of Slobodan Milosevic on March 18 closes another chapter in the bloody history of the Balkans. In the last five years, Milosevic was languishing in a jail cell at The Hague, charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was the first head of state to be brought before a tribunal under international jurisdiction and the first to die in custody.

Yugoslavia was wracked by civil war during the 1990s. Milosevic was only one of the main players in the Balkan tragedy. According to many historians, the West too was culpable in the atrocities and massacres that preceded the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Most Serbians attribute Milosevic's death to "victor's justice". The leader of the Serbian Socialist Party issued the following statement after receiving the news of Milosevic's death:

"Slobodan Milosevic, the president of the Socialist Party of Serbia and a former President of Serbia and Yugoslavia, was murdered at the tribunal in The Hague. The decision of the tribunal to disallow Milosevic's medical treatment at the Bakunin Institute in Moscow represents a prescribed death sentence against Milosevic. Truth and justice were on his side and this is why they used a strategy of gradual killing of Slobodan Milosevic. The responsibility for his death is clearly with The Hague tribunal." Milosevic was born on August 29, 1941. He joined the Serbian Communist Party in 1959 at the age of 18.

Milosevic had a history of high blood pressure and heart problems. Days before he died, he had told his personal physician that he suspected that he was being slowly poisoned. Many people in the Balkans believe that The Hague tribunal preferred his death in prison, realising after a trial lasting four and a half years that a verdict of guilty could not be passed against him. Ramsay Clark, a former United States Attorney General and now a leading peace activist, who was in Serbia to pay his last respects to the departed leader, compared the war crimes trial of Milosevic to the ongoing trial of Saddam Hussein. "Both commanders were courageous enough to fight more powerful countries. He described both the trials as "marred with injustice and flawed". He said: "History will prove that Milosevic was right. The trial did not have facts." Harold Pinter, the Nobel laureate, observed that the "U.S./NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) court trying Slobodan Milosevic was totally illegitimate."

Milosevic had insisted on conducting his own defence. A trained lawyer, he meticulously cross-examined the hundreds of witnesses paraded by the war crimes prosecutor. Dressed formally in a suit and tie, Milosevic on several occasions exposed the West's complicity in the Balkan tragedy. Given his intimate knowledge of the West's machinations in the Balkans, especially the 78-day NATO-led war, Milosevic was in a vantage position to expose the duplicity of leaders such as Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

During the Dayton talks in 1995, Milosevic had interacted closely with top officials of the Clinton administration. Even Milosevic's critics acknowledge that the "Dayton accords" which brought peace to the Balkans in 1995, was possible to a large extent owing to Belgrade's flexibility. That accord had formalised the split in the Yugoslav Federation, with Croatia and Bosnia going their separate ways.

But the game plan of the West was to dismantle completely what was left of the Yugoslav Federation. It was the "massacre" in Racak, in the Serbian province of Kosovo, that provided the ruse for NATO intervention. The Yugoslav authorities claimed that the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) had staged the entire episode. Kosovo is considered the traditional heartland of the Serb people. They are now a minority, drastically outnumbered by ethnic Albanians. A team of Finnish forensic experts sent by the European Union supported the version put out by the authorities in Belgrade.

That Milosevic still had a following was evident from the outpouring of grief that followed his death in many parts of the erstwhile Yugoslavia. Thousands of people queued up patiently in the freezing cold in Belgrade to have a last glimpse of their leader. The West had pressured the powers that be in Belgrade to hand over Milosevic. The Bush administration had threatened to cut off all aid to the government. Millions of dollars of International Monetary Fund/World Bank money that the war-shattered Serbian economy needed were withheld. Promises of putting Serbia's application for membership of the European Union on the fast track were made.

At The Hague, Milosevic meticulously detailed the American role in the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation. However, the U.S.-backed court deprived Milosevic the right to represent himself. Though much of the world lost interest in the Milosevic trial after the events of September 11, the proceedings continued to be aired live in many parts of former Yugoslavia. The thousands of civilians who had been affected by the NATO bombings had hoped for a sympathetic hearing. This correspondent saw the remnants of bombed-out radio and television stations and civilian infrastructure during a visit to Serbia a few months after the NATO-led war. Not even diplomatic niceties were observed. An American cruise missile targeted the Chinese Embassy located in the diplomatic enclave of Belgrade. Depleted uranium bombs and cluster bombs were used in the military campaign. NATO bombs destroyed many bridges over the Danube, a key waterway in Central Europe. Many innocent civilians were killed when NATO jets targeted a passenger train.

Contemporary historians believe that the 78-day war waged by NATO against Yugoslavia was a forerunner to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Like Saddam Hussein before him, Western governments and their pliant media demonised Milosevic. To justify American military intervention, President Clinton described the war against the Yugoslav Federation as "humanitarian intervention" to stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo. After President George W. Bush took office, he justified his war in Afghanistan as "self-defence". Similarly, the war in Iraq was conducted on the pretext of removing "weapons of mass destruction".

Richard Perle, the neo-conservative ideologue, was quoted as saying that the Yugoslav war was "the first precedent" the U.S. used to override United Nations Security Council resolutions. Before NATO went to war, the Security Council had passed an even-handed resolution, which condemned "both the excessive use of force by the Serbian police against civilians" and the "acts of terrorism by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)".

In the post-Soviet era, strong leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic have not been to the liking of the West. Milosevic was not only determined to keep the Yugoslav Federation intact but was also strongly against the economic prescriptions of the IMF/World Bank. Yugoslavia had a strong public sector. The reforms instituted by the international banking institutions in the 1980s had resulted in massive unemployment and the collapse of the banking system.

Milosevic was first elected President of the Yugoslav Federation in 1989. Once in office, he displayed an independent and combative streak, unlike the leaders of other Central and East European countries who were kowtowing to the West. A leading American daily commented in the mid-1990s that Milosevic "was unable to grasp the political message of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Other Communist politicians accepted the Western model, but Milosevic went the other way."

The collapse of the Soviet bloc had an immediate impact on the Yugoslav Federation. The West, especially Germany, encouraged Slovenia and Croatia to break away from the Federation. Franko Tudjman, leader of the Croats, and Alija Izetbegovic, leader of the Bosnian Muslims, began their campaign for the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation. During the Second World War both these leaders were supporters of the Nazis, yet both Tudjman and Izetbegovic died peacefully in office. No charges of war crimes or genocide were brought against them though there are documented cases of massacres of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia.

Western machinations against the Yugoslav Federation became evident in early 1991. The then German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, supported the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation by advocating "independence" for Croatia and Slovenia. Such was the growing influence of Germany in the Balkans that even Washington became a little wary. In 1992, the Bavarian Interior Minister claimed: "Helmut Kohl has succeeded where neither Emperor Guillaime nor Hitler could."

Washington did not want Germany or the E.U. to be the pre-eminent power in the region. The Clinton administration influenced the Izetbegovic government against signing the peace agreements the Europeans negotiated in 1993. This action needlessly prolonged the war in Bosnia for another two years but ultimately helped realise the American goal to install NATO as the continental police and restrict Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea.

Many observers of the Balkan scene believe that it was the meddling of the West in Bosnia-Herzegovina that precipitated the internecine bloodletting. According to them, dividing the state on the basis of its ethnic composition, as recommended by the E.U., was the first serious mis-step. The three groups had coexisted harmoniously since the war; 7 per cent of the Bosnian population was mixed and Sarajevo, the capital, was among the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. As the state headed for secession under the E.U.'s prodding, civil war was inevitable.

Izetbegovic used incendiary rhetoric. During the 1990 election campaign, he issued an "Islamic Declaration" which stated that "there can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and those social and political institutions that are non-Islamic." He also invited Islamic fighters fresh from their jehad in Afghanistan into Bosnia. Milosevic complained to the international community that Al Qaeda elements were active in Bosnia and Kosovo. But this was before the events of 9/11 and the Americans did not object to the presence of Arab, Pakistani and Chechen fighters in the Balkans.

In the civil war that followed, all sides were guilty of ethnic cleansing. Some Serb leaders in Bosnia, such as Radovan Karadzic, were no more than right-wing nationalists. In fact, Milosevic had on several occasions objected to the activities of the Serb militias. His wife, Mira Markovic, was also very critical of the Serb militias, which were responsible for the massacres in Srebrenica and Sarajevo. However, more than 150,000 Serbs were forced out of Krajina by the Croatian army, intent on ethnic cleansing. When this writer was in Belgrade, thousands of them were living in squalid refugee camps on the outskirts of Belgrade. The Serbs themselves were also victims of massacres and ethnic cleansing in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia. Milosevic was singled out by the West because it suited it to do so.

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