Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in his prison cell in the last days of his defense against 66 different indictments for war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo over an eight-year period. Like his life itself, his death is filled with controversy.
Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in his prison cell in the last days of his defense against 66 different indictments for war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo over an eight-year period. Like his life itself, his death is filled with controversy.
Slobodan Milosevic: His Legacy and Interaction with the International Community
Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague in his prison cell in the last days of his defense against 66 different indictments for war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo over an eight-year period. Like his life itself, his death is filled with controversy. Depending on your particular prejudices, you can believe that he was deliberately taking powerful drugs to render his other medication for heart ailments ineffective (either to support his request for going to Moscow for medical treatment – and possibly never coming back – or to bring about his own death); that he was deliberately “poisoned” by Hague officials; or that he died because of heartless Hague prosecutors who refused to listen to his repeated requests for medical treatment in Moscow or suspension of the trial against him until he recovered his health.
His death is already being used by the Socialist Party and the Radicals to further their political aims. They are now assessing the overall public reaction and whether to use this as a catalyst to bring the government down or simply to reinforce their anti-Western, pro-Nationalist policies among their supporters and potential supporters. Certainly those already predisposed to think the worst of the war crimes tribunal will be reinforced in their views.
I am convinced that the worst possible alternative in Milosevic’s view was a completion of the trial with the inevitable guilty verdicts and a lifetime prison sentence far from home and far from the public spotlight. His widow, Mira Markovic, actually predicted his death in a meeting in my residence in Belgrade in 2003. She was there to give me a letter to President Bush, asking for his intervention with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to suspend his trial for one year in order for him to rest and regain his strength. Later in the conversation, she expressed her fears that he would die while defending himself; that he deliberately overtaxed himself and at times did not take his medication for blood pressure problems. ICTY officials have subsequently confirmed that was the case. I am also sure that he would supremely enjoy the controversy, conspiracy theories, and frustration of the Hague prosecutors (and many victims of the Balkan wars) that his death and premature ending of his trial has engendered.
The ICTY is fully responsible for how this mess has turned out. It took less than one year at Nuremberg to try 22 Nazi defendants. Slobodan Milosevic’s trial was into its fifth year with a cost that has been put at around $200 million. Three decisions in particular were devastating: indicting Milosevic on 66 different charges, thereby requiring that each be proved by an endless list of witnesses and documentary evidence; joining the indictments for events in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Croatia together rather than having separate trials for each; and permitting him to conduct his own defense. While each of these three critical decisions had its own logic, the end result was a trial that was never finished and that due to its length and nature had done little to bring reconciliation to the Balkans and had actually increased Milosevic’s popularity in Serbia. It is not only Milosevic who died. So did the original Chief Judge, Sir Richard May, more than one year ago.
Milosevic’s death and the subsequent abandonment of the trial against him is also a significant setback for the cases filed by Croatia and Bosnia against Serbia in the International Criminal Tribunal. A conviction of Milosevic for the crime of genocide could have significantly buttressed those cases. While the documentation and other evidence introduced at his trial will be available for use, it will lack the weight that a conviction would have provided.
What Yugoslavia desperately needed in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a larger-than-life moderate leader such as Mikhail Gorbachov or Nelson Mandela. In both of their countries, the potential existed for widespread violence in a time of transition and instability. But their personal efforts guided events in a more peaceful direction. I really do believe the same was possible here. After all, the Soviet Union shared many of the same issues as Yugoslavia faced (different Republics wanting independence; large Russian minority populations; years of Communist, autocratic rule). Nevertheless, Gorbachov saw through the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
I last saw President Milosevic in 1996, when I was Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State for Bosnian Peace Implementation. U.S. officials, including me, met rather frequently with him in those days, knowing that he had the ability, if he so desired, to influence or direct the Bosnian Serbs. Sometimes he helped, sometimes he did not. His standard approach at that time was that the Bosnian Serb leaders were loose cannons, out of his control, but that he would “do what he could.”
The meeting was in response to an ongoing boycott by Bosnian Serbs of all cooperation with the international community and Bosnian government institutions. It occurred because the Bosniaks had stopped a Bosnian Serb motor vehicle which had taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Federation territory. When they found a Bosnian Serb general, Djukic, and another army officer in the vehicle, they promptly arrested them, charged them with war crimes, and sent them to The Hague. The whole process significantly endangered the principle of freedom of movement in Bosnia. We went to Milosevic to ask his help in moderating the Bosnian Serb reaction and reaching a comprehensive agreement on the road ahead.
Milosevic asked for a summary of what had happened and particularly why the car was stopped in the first place. He was told by one of our delegation that the car was stopped because it was a stolen car. “A stolen car?” Milosevic asked. “Yes,” he was told. Milosevic slowly shook his head with a look of amazement/disgust/irony and said “What is this about a stolen car? Let’s talk about stolen souls, stolen lives. That is what happened here. But please, not about a stolen car in the Balkans. That is just too trivial.” My last memory of Milosevic will always be those haunting words “stolen souls, stolen lives,” spoken by one who had done so much to bring that about.
I have thought long and hard over whether in fact the flow of history in the 20th century meant that Yugoslavia was doomed one way or another. Created by the international community in the aftermath of the First World War, it brought together ethnic groups with radically different historical and cultural differences. We all learned in the past twenty years the power of nationalism and the difficult, if not impossible, task of trying to suppress or eliminate those feelings. Soviet Communism could in the most brutal way repress the Baltic states, but it never could eliminate the pride, love, and determination of its peoples for their own place in the sun. In the same way, with the winds of change and the downfall of the Soviet empire, the Croatian and Slovenian peoples followed the same path taken by many other peoples in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
At the same time, if there was one person who single-handedly made the downfall of Yugoslavia inevitable, it was Slobodan Milosevic. It was his provocative speech in 1988 in stating to Kosovar Serbs that “They will never dare to beat you again” and subsequent remarks that unleashed the forces of nationalism in Serbia (and subsequently throughout Yugoslavia) in an extreme way. It was his actions in looting the National Bank of Yugoslavia for Serbia alone that convinced many that Yugoslavia could not survive.
I remember meetings in 1991 and in 1992 with Presidents Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Gligorov of Macedonia. Neither was a fierce proponent of independence for their republics and they recognized the dangers inherent in going down that path. But they also were frank in stating that there was no way that they could stay in a Yugoslavia without Croatia and Slovenia to help offset Milosevic’s power.
As Yugoslavia started to come apart, Milosevic played his most cynical, evil role. He deliberately used government-controlled media to convince Serbs that the new governments in Croatia and Bosnia, as well as citizens of those countries, were persecuting ethnic Serbs. He encouraged, armed, financed, trained, and advised Serbs in those countries to set up autonomous regions which did not recognize the authority of the national governments. He also used his special forces troops to covertly perpetrate acts of violence in those countries to inflame passions. As the violence grew, he armed, financed, and encouraged paramilitary units in Serbia headed by individuals, such as Arkan, and unleashed them on the Bosniak and Croatian citizens. He cleverly transferred – on paper – Serbs in the Yugoslav Army to a new Army of the Serbs in Bosnia and provided them with weapons and financing. This gave the Bosnian Serbs an enormous military advantage over the other ethnic groups. The cynicism of this whole process came out after his downfall, when it was revealed that virtually all the Bosnian Serb military leaders were still on the payroll of the Yugoslav Army in 2001.
The reality is that for all the death and suffering which he helped to bring about in other parts of the former Yugoslavia, one could well argue that his greatest damage was done to Serbia and the Serbs themselves. I believe in fact that Slobodan Milosevic did more damage to Serbia and the Serbian people than any other Serb in history. His legacy to Serbia includes bringing about the end of Yugoslavia, a country loved by the Serbs; over 600,000 Serb refugees and displaced persons in Serbia today who have arrived from Kovovo, Croatia, and Bosnia; thousands killed, wounded, and missing; a healthcare and educational infrastructure that is critically under-funded and lacking even the most basic elements; a society where criminal behavior has been nourished rather than suppressed by the state; the upcoming loss of Kosovo for sure and of Montenegro in all probability; and a prolonged drain of its best and brightest, who emigrate to the West when possible. The standard of living in Serbia today is still below what it was sixteen years ago.
Zoran Djindjic recognized this and his initial impulse was to try Milosevic first in Serbia in order for the Serbian people to finally and fully understand his true nature. Only after several months of frustration, did the late Prime Minister acknowledge that at that point in time (2001) the Serbian criminal justice system was incapable of investigating, trying, and convicting him of anything. It was only after this realization that Djindjic did decide to support his transfer to The Hague. This decision helped to bring about his subsequent assassination.
Interaction with the international community
The role of the international community in the Balkans during the past fifteen years was complex. For years, countries and institutions were unwilling to commit decisive military force to resolve the Balkan conflicts. We differed tremendously on what should be done, what was actually happening, and who should do what. Initially, the U.S. wanted to leave it to the EU and this organization was happy to step in, only to be proven ineffectual. Some of the basic weaknesses of the UN as an institution were painfully exposed with lasting consequences. UNPROFOR, for example, was the wrong force with the wrong mandate and guidelines for Bosnia. Its powerlessness in the face of aggression and pathetic reasons for inaction both brought shame to the international community and, far more importantly, made the aggressors feel that they had nothing to fear from the outside world and could do as they please. This result, given the makeup and practices of the UN Security Council, was very predictable.
The reality is that it will be exceedingly rare when the five members of the UN Security Council can agree on strong, decisive action on a major problem confronting the world. The Balkan wars are a classic example. The end result is that more and more countries like the United States are looking at a variety of options to deal with pressing problems other than through the UN. This includes NATO, the OSCE, the Organization of American States, and perhaps most importantly – the Coalition of the Willing. The bombing of Serbia by NATO, as well as the invasion of Iraq, are two examples.
There are some important lessons here, if we care to learn them. Don’t send peacekeepers when you need peace enforcers. Make sure whoever you do send is more than adequately equipped to fully defend themselves and that they have clear orders to respond aggressively to the slightest challenge. But the central point remains that the UN needs serious reform if it wants to stay relevant.
If there was a chance to stop the violence, it really was at the very beginning. Many countries, including the United States, were trying desperately to keep Yugoslavia together, even when most objective observers realized it was a lost cause. This had two negative consequences: it encouraged Milosevic to believe that he, at the very least, would not be opposed by the international community for his initial military actions and it prevented the international community from actively working to guarantee that the inevitable breakup was a peaceful one. I remember very well that the Serbian ploy of using paramilitary units and simple terrorists to drive the Muslim/Croat populations out of Bosnian cities, such as Foca or Visegrad, and then having the military come in behind to “stabilize” the situation was at least initially accepted as a possibly legitimate step. Only after the same process was repeated time and again did it become clear that it was planned ethnic cleansing.
I was in a key position in the State Department at the time. I am one hundred percent positive that not a single Western country had the stomach to use the threat or reality of actual military force to enforce a peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia. So violence took place and was not effectively countered. I do believe that very strong, decisive, and united measures by the international community with full NATO support at that moment could have saved a lot of heartache and suffering.
It seems clear that acting quickly and decisively in a crisis is ten times easier than delaying unpleasant steps in hope that things will miraculously get better. Nevertheless, as we have seen many times AFTER the Balkan wars, the same hesitancy to act occurs time and again when the world is confronted with similar crises. The current situation in Darfur is a case in point.
The mechanisms which the international community has at its disposal to influence/change the behavior of individual countries are clumsy and often ineffective. We did all we could to try to dissuade Slobodan Milosevic and the other parties from using violence. This began even in the late 1980s when we were concerned over human rights violations in Serbia proper and Kosovo. We tried demarches, meetings, and then escalating sanctions. None of the above had the immediate impact we desired.
One could argue that the sanctions worked in the end, as the primary cause of Milosevic’s election defeat in 2000 was that the Serbian people were so fed up with a failed economy that they finally started to consider other alternatives.
In any case, those sanctions had a lot of negative consequences that are still being felt in Serbia and in neighboring countries. When I was Ambassador to Bulgaria, the country was losing ten percent of its annual income because it could not ship fresh food products through Serbia to Western European markets. Moreover, its border and customs officers were corrupted by Serbian smugglers. Once corruption sets in, it is tough to eradicate. In Serbia proper, the healthcare and education systems have been devastated by more than a decade of far less than adequate funding. Criminal gangs that thrive in Serbia today, including the one involved in the assassination of Prime Minister Djindjic, got their start in smuggling of gasoline and other products in short supply with the full encouragement and support of the Milosevic government.
The more ruthless the dictator, the less immediate impact sanctions will have on leadership behavior. The damage done by the sanctions to a society lasts far longer than the dictator who brought them about. We also found that it was incredibly easy to put on punitive sanctions against a country and against a long list of individuals considered to be “facilitating” Milosevic, but a million times harder to remove those sanctions. Some took literally more than three years to reverse following the downfall of Milosevic.
The US involvement has been very erratic. In the early 1990s, we wished to leave it to the EU (and the EU was very willing). With the Holbrooke Peace Mission in 1995, we took control of the issue and dominated it until the end of the bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Now we are determined to get out and again leave it to the Europeans. Our haste to get out quickly is leading us to push hard to resolve this year the two issues which we have identified as critical to our exit strategy: future status of Kosovo and the transfer to The Hague of Mladic and Karadzic. The pressure that we and now others in the international community are exerting on these issues is increasing political instability in Serbia and making it ever more likely that the radicals will come to power there.
Membership in the EU is the single uniting factor that almost everybody in the Balkans agrees on. Played correctly, this could be a tremendous carrot. But there are significant problems. First, the EU is in crisis. It is itself not sure of its basic goals nor its future. It is very unclear if any new members will be taken at all and if so, when and under what conditions. Second, membership under the best of circumstances is very far off for Serbia and Bosnia. This gives this carrot less immediate value. Third, use of the same carrot for different goals also diminishes its effectiveness. We are now seeing that the EU is threatening to end stabilization and association agreement talks with Belgrade in early April if Mladic is not turned over to The Hague. This step, however, could have a large impact on the impending Montenegrin Independence Referendum and eliminates any desire to cooperate on other issues as well.
Virtually no one in the Balkans believes that the EU has the drive and strength to take tough, military decisions if needed. It does not get the respect it needs to ensure proper behavior (due to its behavior in Bosnia in particular). When the going gets tough, no one has confidence that the EU will be able to handle it.
As the bombing campaign was coming to an end and Serbia was beginning its capitulation, Russia unilaterally and suddenly took a large part of its peacekeeping contingent from Bosnia and drove them hurriedly to Kosovo to take control of the airport in Pristina, among other objectives. It then attempted an airlift of more troops from Russia proper directly to Pristina. This was foiled because Romania and other countries bravely denied them air clearances. This was an incredibly dangerous moment. First of all, there was a real possibility of a confrontation in Pristina with our forces. Secondly, if Russia had called Romania’s bluff and had flown through the airspace anyway, the consequences would have been unknown. I am convinced that we do not have the whole story by any means on this Russian adventure or what part it may have played in Milosevic’s decision to capitulate. My personal view is that he and at least some senior Russians tried to have a fait accompli whereby the Russian Army would control the northern part of Kosovo where many Serbs live and create a de facto partition of Kosovo. That, however, is just my speculation.
Russia could have played an important positive role in the Balkan issues. But it traditionally has seen them (as well as the countries of Central and Eastern Europe) as some sort of 19th century zero-sum game. Countries that opted for more democratic means, for joining the EU and NATO, were viewed as “losses” and they were certainly not looked at favorably. Slobodan Milosevic, precisely because of his problems with Western democracies, was a favorite. So it is no surprise that Mira Markovic, his wife, and Marko, his son, live in Moscow without any problems, even though the democratic Serbian government has issued arrest warrants for them. At least one apprehended Serbian war criminal has acknowledged living in Russia and at least one other, still at large, almost certainly is also in Russia.
My judgment is that if the radicals do come to power in Serbia, the Russians will be more pro-active there in providing assistance. Their role in the upcoming decision-making process on Kosovo’s future status will be interesting. Will they prevent action in the UN Security Council? If they do, they will not stop recognition of Kosovo’s independence, but they will once again demonstrate the incapacity of the UN to deal with issues. As they take great stock in their role in the UN, they need to be careful about dooming it into irrelevance.
Bringing about the downfall of a dictator
Many of the true democrats in Serbia are bitter at the role of the international community in the 1990s. They are convinced that at least the perception that was given to the Serbian population during this time was that Slobodan Milosevic was a valued partner and problem solver. This was aided by countless coverage in the Serbian media of smiling Western diplomats journeying to Belgrade for what appeared to be congenial sessions with Milosevic. A surprising number of Serbs really believed for a long time that he was “our” man. The democrats are convinced that it was this perceived support which actually helped Milosevic to stay in power as long as he did.
The dilemma, of course, was that Milosevic did have at the very least tremendous influence over the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. At times, he could even order actions to be taken or not to be taken. So, for example, if we were not prepared to launch a massive military action in Bosnia, the only real alternative was to try to work with Milosevic using a combination of sticks (sanctions, suspending membership in international organizations) and carrots (end of sanctions, meetings).
In fact, the negotiations with Milosevic did achieve results. He cynically and systematically abandoned the Croatian and Bosnian Serb regimes which he initially had encouraged and supported. This was particularly true in Croatia, where the enclaves which Serbs carved out were systemically eliminated by the Croatian Army. While there was no question that this reflected the increasing capability of Croatian forces, it also reflected Milosevic’s unwillingness to fully commit his military might to the defense of the enclaves.
There are several ways to get rid of national leaders. In Iraq, the United States used a massive military invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. In Serbia, nationalists and criminal gangs assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. An internal revolution, like the one in Iran which deposed the late Shah, is a third way.
What we have seen in several countries in Central and Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and in the former Soviet Union is regime change by democratic means. Authoritarian, repressive leaders have been brought down by popular demand. This is what happened to Slobodan Milosevic. There are typically four essential qualities which must be in place for this to work.
A) The most critical factor is that a significant percentage of the population must truly be fed up with the authoritarian government that they are confronting. There must be a critical mass of activists and others who are willing to risk quite a bit bringing about change. This critical mass did not exist in Serbia for a long time. The fact is that Milosevic was clever at presenting himself to the Serbian people as a defender of their interests. It was not political defeats or policies which brought him down. It was that the ultimate weight of sanctions had depressed the economy so much that finally the ordinary people just wanted a chance at a better life.
B) The international community must provide needed support for opposition political parties and for all the non-governmental organizations which are concerned with human rights issues, democratic transition, freedom of speech, and monitoring elections to ensure that they are free and fair. One critical component is strong moral support: the population needs to understand that Western democracies are supportive of change. But obviously, much more needs to be done. Opposition parties need training in how to organize political parties, how to organize political rallies, and how to get their messages out to the public. Independent media must be financed and supported, so that they can provide more accurate, impartial information on what is happening in the country. Grass-roots activists all over the country have to be fully engaged and have effective leadership. For example, one of the critical steps which brought about Milosevic’s downfall was that due to elaborate election monitoring which the Serbian democratic opposition and non-governmental organizations were able to do (thanks to our training and support), they knew exactly what the results were and their claims had total legitimacy. This undercut Milosevic’s efforts to alter the results.
C) It helps that the authoritarian leader has been in power for some time. A process seems to happen whereby the leader loses touch with reality. This happened to Milosevic. He simply could not believe that he could be defeated or that the opposition could stay united to do so. Over time, he had limited his access to information and his inner circle shielded him from the truth to an extent that he did not know the danger that the 2000 elections posed for him until they had actually taken place. By all accounts, he was astonished at the results (which our polling had confidently predicted several weeks in advance).
D) Finally, the authoritarian leader has to cooperate in his own demise. In the end, the above strategy relies on having an authoritarian dictator who actually wants to have the benefits of association with the West and is therefore willing to tolerate non-governmental organizations and opposition political parties to some extent. Milosevic did so in large part because of vanity, because he believed that he had the support of the majority of the Serbian people, that he had sufficient control over all organizations and that he could fix all electoral problems. This was a critical mistake.
Implications for Belarus and other undemocratic governments
It is abundantly clear that both Vladimir Putin and Lukashenko of Belarus have studied carefully the implications of Slobodan Milosevic’s downfall. Both governments have taken strong actions to restrict free media and non-governmental organizations. One critical factor is economics. To the degree that a country is not dependent on international organizations, such as the World Bank and the IMF, as well as on assistance from individual countries and the EU, it has far more freedom to act as it pleases. Belarus, for example, clearly anticipates that it will receive all the economic support it requires from Russia and so it can ignore threats of sanctions from the West. As long as this is the case, the “Serbian formula” will not apply. The concern, however, is that it is rare when authoritarian governments can really harness the energy of the population and maintain competitive, vigorous economic growth over the long term. As these disparities grow, the desire for regime change will also get bigger. If there are no peaceful outlets for these feelings, they will go underground and when they finally do emerge, it may be with far more violence and cause far more instability.