‘Butcher of the Balkans’ is finally dead
Weekly Pulse
March 18-24, 2006
The irony in Slobodan Milosevic’s death, which is still shrouded in mystery, is that justice could not be done to the tens of thousands of victims of Balkan wars—for which the former Serbian president of Yugoslavia was being tried at the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague. As Carla del Ponte, the chief UN prosecuter, commented after Milosevic’s death, “It deprives the victims of the justice they need and deserve.”

The trial had been going on for the last nearly five years, and just fifty hours of testimony was left before its conclusion. The former Serbian leader was indicted by the War Crimes Tribunal for his role in three wars—in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo—and almost a decade of bloodshed and vengeance that killed more than 200,000 people and earned him the title of the “Butcher of the Balkans.”

Behind bars since 2001, and suffering from acute heart ailment, Milosevic is stated to have consumed drugs that may have deteriorated his health. The former Serbian dictator had recently desired to be taken to Moscow for medical checkup, a request the UN Tribunal had turned down. Whatever the toxicologist’s report finally states, the fact that Milosevic committed suicide in prison could not be ruled out. After all, both of his parents had also met the same demise. For Milosevic himself, committing suicide would have been the best option for perpetuating his personality cult among the leftover of Serbian nationalists.

The cult of Milosevic was the product of Yugoslavian disintegration that followed the death of Communist leader Tito in mid-1980s. By stirring Serbian nationalist fervor—especially invoking in 1989 the memory of Serbian defeat at the hands of Ottoman Turks in the 600-year old battle of Kosovo—he succeeded in rallying support for himself among the Serbs. The late 1980s was also a time when Communism in the rest of Eastern Europe was in its death throes.

In the 1990s, in order to realize his personal ambition for “Greater Serbia,” Milosevic became the prime engineer of wars that pitted his fellow Serbs against the Slovenes, the Croats, the Bosnian Muslims, the Albanians of Kosovo and ultimately the combined forces of the entire NATO alliance.

In 1992, the first war Milosevic imposed was against the Croats, who reacted by turning to their own nationalist leader, Tudjman, and so the stage was set for a deadly showdown between Yugoslavia's two largest ethnic groups, whose leaders manipulated centuries of historical differences—the Serbs are Orthodox Christians, the Croats Roman Catholic; the Serbs endured Ottoman rule, the Croats the Hapsburgs—into a brutal civil war that spread from Croatia into Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the second round of war started in 1994, pitting the Serbs mainly against Bosnian Muslims. Three and a half years of war ravaged Bosnia, leading to some 200,000 deaths, mostly Bosnian Muslims, and the eviction of millions from homes in a practice that became known globally as “ethnic cleansing.”

The consequences of Milosevic's rule for Serbia were devastating. His final confrontation, with the Albanians of Kosovo, provoked a NATO bombing assault in the spring of 1999 that destroyed government buildings, factories and much infrastructure in a land already ruined by years of international sanctions intended to punish the Milosevic-led regime for instigating earlier wars.

By the fall of 2000, even Milosevic’s appeals to nationalism and blatant manipulation of every election he contested were no longer enough to sustain him in power. He was finally overthrown in October 2000, placed under house arrest in Belgrade, and then handed over to The Hague in the summer of 2001.

The bloodiest of all episodes that Milosevic is accused of personally spearheading was the massacre of over 7,000 innocent Bosnian Muslims in the town Srebrenica in a matter of days. While Milosevic had been facing justice over the tragic incident at The Hague, two of its principal characters, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic are still at large. Their arrest and transfer to The Hague is the primary condition imposed by the European Union on the Serbian government for the start of any EU membership talks with Belgrade.

Milosevic’s sudden death, therefore, may have closed only one chapter of the international accountability process, as the UN Tribunal has formally closed the hearings on the case after his death. As del Ponte herself has stated, “Now more than ever I expect Serbia to finally arrest and transfer Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to The Hague as soon as possible. The death of Slobodan Milosevic makes it even more urgent for them to face justice.”

All said and done, the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague for the Former Yugoslavia may not have been able to do justice in Milosevic’s case—or the nature may have taken its own course—there is an important lesson to draw from the short tale narrated above: that the quest for unlimited personal power, especially if it is acquired at the expense of tens of thousands of innocent lives, always has a tragic end.

Having covered the events of Kosovo war in the spring of 1999 as a freelance writer from the eastern Mediterranean region, which was not that far from the last theatre of the three Balkan wars, I remember the vengeance and arrogance of Milosevic. He was a part of the 1995 Dayton Accords, mediated by Richard Holbrooke, the Clinton Administration’s special envoy for the Balkans, which ended the years-long bloodbath in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Even though the peace settlement that Dayton Accords brought was precarious—resting essentially on the shoulders of some 20,000 US peacekeepers—the Serbian nationalist leader had internationally committed not to initiate another war in the region. But he did. This time in Kosovo, which was sacred to him for being the base for his nationalist rise back in the late 80s.

The ethnically Albanian Muslims of Kosovo would have met the same fate as had their counterparts in Bosnia Herzegovina, if the NATO had not decided to bomb Yugoslavia. For that matter, the butchery of Bosnian Muslims, tens of thousands of whom died in the years-long siege of Sarajevo alone, could have been avoided had the Europeans—the French in particular—not indirectly conspired with the Milosevic regime by acting as silent spectators of the ethnic-cleansing of Bosnian Muslims.

I still remember that notorious French General Janvier, the commander of the UN peacekeepers, predominantly Dutch, who refused to taken any preemptive action to prevent the massacre of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrinica. Interestingly, at the time, the political head of the UN mission in the Balkans was no one else that the Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan.

There is documentary evidence available to prove that both Mr Annan and General Janvier did not pay any attention to repeated appeals from the Dutch peacekeepers for urgent action to prevent the Srebrenica massacre. These documents later appeared in a diplomatic publication, and are widely known among the diplomatic community. However, no one was held accountable for criminal negligence after the massacre took place.

That the nature has taken its own course by physically eliminating Milosevic is a good omen. Now it will be tragic for the Serbs if he ends up becoming a legendary hero in their eyes after his death. The consequences of that, however, would be borne by the Serbs alone, as they have been one of the principal suffers of the war games dictated upon them and the people of entire Balkan region by Milosevic.

Milosevic was a nationalist monster that the breakup of the flawed communist structure in Eastern Europe produced at the end of the Twentieth Century. He tactfully used historically rooted racial and religious differences among the inhabitants of the Balkans. Milosevic pitted his xenophobic Orthodox Christian-Slavic Serbian followers against non-Slavic Catholic Christian Croats and the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo of Turkic-Albanian origin. The consequent wars that he dictated on the Balkans made the last decade of the last century one of the bloodiest in terms of ethnic cleansing. Milosevic will be remembered in modern European history as a dictator of his own sorts.