Slobodan Milosevic
Slobodan Milosevic; drawing by David Levine

In mid-February, during the opening days of the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, I spent a week in Belgrade talking about him to friends and experts, politicians and victims. I asked them about their reactions to his trial and what effect they thought it was having on their country. My notebook slowly filled up with dozens of contradictory and confusing views, most of them, it must be said, critical of the trial in one way or another. When I went to get a haircut, Branko, the barber, summed it all up in the space of five minutes. As the scissors skimmed around my left ear he said, “Milosevic is innocent.” As he moved up to the top of my head he declared, “Milosevic is guilty, but then so were Izetbegovic and Tudjman.”1 When he reached my right ear he said, “Under Milosevic things were great. Now the government will privatize our shop and then we’ll lose our jobs.” By the time Branko had got to just above the nape of my neck, though, doubts began to set in. He stood up straight and with a sharp jerk of the scissors declared, “Fuck Milosevic!”

It is not surprising that Serbs are confused.2 For more than a decade Milosevic and his cronies were constantly on television declaring that the Serbs were being set upon by evil, genocidal Croats, Muslim fundamentalists, Albanian drug dealers, American scum, German Nazis, etc. Now, with Milosevic on trial in The Hague and with the proceedings broadcast live, he is repeating his accusations over again—and for hours and hours nonstop.3


On February 14 Slobodan Milosevic began his defense before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, in The Hague. He stands accused of sixty-six counts of war crimes—including ethnic cleansing in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the murder of civilians and prisoners, and, gravest of all, genocide in Bosnia. Predictably, Milosevic rejects these charges. He says that everyone else was to blame, especially NATO, that he either knew nothing about the crimes or had no influence on the people that committed them, and that the accusations are lies in any case. Indeed, with an eye perhaps to aligning himself with anti-globalization protesters, Milosevic shrewdly told the court on February 18 that Yugoslavia had been a victim of a Western “strategic concept in realizing global control.” It was, he said, the West that was

subjugating countries throughout the world [and] causing…conflicts between the Slav and Muslim nations in the hope that they will kill each other respectively or at least weaken each other so much that control may be established over them in such a weakened state. Kosovo and Chechnya in that respect are undoubtedly a link in the same chain….

On one of my first visits to Belgrade, in June 1991, I was held up at the airport because the police were blocking the road for James Baker, then US secretary of state, who had come to plead with Yugoslav leaders to keep the country together. Later he was criticized in the press for not being more explicit and more forceful. Some argued that Milosevic had taken Baker to mean that if Slovenia and Croatia tried to secede then the US would do nothing to prevent the Yugoslav People’s Army from restoring order and securing the country’s borders. But according to Milosevic’s testimony on February 18, “There are some people who haven’t realized the truth today,” namely that the war “in the territory of the former Yugoslavia is the result of the will and interest of others, the great Western powers.”

In case you would like to know what Western purpose could possibly have been served by these disastrous wars, and by the long-term expense of stationing peacekeepers in the region and maintaining weak states and tiny volatile territories with basket-case economies like Kosovo, Milosevic told the court, and indeed Serbia and the world, that the aim was “a new colonialism.” But, one might ask, aren’t colonizers supposed to get some benefit from their colonies? Perhaps Milosevic will devise an answer to this question later in the trial. For the moment Milosevic’s rantings amount to a long plea of “not guilty” and an attempt to carve his name in history as the man who saved the Serbs—not the man who destroyed Yugoslavia, lost Kosovo, and left Serbia an impoverished, shattered state.

In Belgrade this February I went to see Branka Prpa, a historian now in charge of the city’s historical archives, who was the companion of Slavko Curuvija, the late newspaper editor once close to Milosevic and, especially, to his wife, Mira Markovic. Curuvija had later changed his opinions—perhaps persuaded by Prpa—and had come out against Milosevic. Especially after NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia began on March 24, 1999, the secret police were watching Curuvija twenty-four hours a day. Just over two weeks later, on April 11, Prpa and Curuvija were assaulted on the street by two armed men. Seventeen shots were fired, and Curuvija was killed. Prpa remained, as she put it, “alive by accident.”


Those responsible for Curuvija’s death have never been brought to justice. To bring about Milosevic’s fall a great many murky deals were made by the then opposition with members of the security apparatus, with the result that many now remain in their old jobs. As a result, as Prpa puts it, you can hardly expect the secret police establishment to “accuse itself of that crime. Are those that participated in it supposed to conduct the investigation? That is possible in fairy tales, but not in reality.”

I asked Prpa what she, as both a victim and a historian of Serbian politics, made of the trial so far. Milosevic’s defense was “disgusting,” she said, because, while the prosecution team made clear that he was on trial as an individual, he was trying, in his attempt to discredit the court, to suggest that in fact the entire Serbian people were on trial and not the man who had actually manipulated them, dragging their country into war and committing vicious crimes. This line, she said, was being taken up by his supporters and former collaborators, who “want to make him a saint” and are “trying to get ordinary people to commiserate with him. They are playing on their suffering during the war…but the fact is that he has destroyed our lives and our country.”

Not far from Prpa’s flat is the Serbian parliament, where I spoke to Branislav Ivkovic, the leader in the national assembly of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia. On his secretary’s wall is a picture of a youthful-looking Milosevic with his young grandson Marko. Ivkovic told me that Milosevic in his defense was exposing “the media lies about us.” He referred to the mauling Milosevic appeared to have given to the prosecution’s first witness, a Kosovo Albanian politician, on February 18. When Milosevic hectored him about being an ally of “the terrorists” of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), Mahmut Bakalli, who had been the leader of Kosovo until 1981, looked panicky and sometimes confused. In fact, if you read the transcripts of what he said to Milosevic, his replies were mostly, if not all, quite credible. He argued that while the Kosovars resented direct Serbian rule in the early 1990s, they reacted peacefully, by setting up their own civil institutions, until the Serbs became increasingly brutal. Still, Bakalli looked weak on television and Ivko-vic crowed that Milosevic had “destroyed” him.

But credibility is Milosevic’s problem, since it is he who is on trial. Milosevic claims, for example, that during the Bosnian war he was president of Serbia and therefore had nothing to do with the war in Bosnia. But what, I asked Ivkovic, of the fact that the Yugoslav authorities paid the salaries of Bosnian Serb army officers, which was common knowledge at the time? According to the present government, they are still doing so, although they are about to stop. Didn’t this give the lie to Milosevic’s claims? Ivkovic said, as I suppose Milosevic will say in court, “I really did not know this.”

During the next few days after Mahmut Bakalli’s testimony the prosecution brought Kosovars to The Hague to testify about the mass deportations and flight of more than 800,000 Albanians from Kosovo during the NATO bombing.4 Milosevic appeared extremely well informed about each of the witnesses, their families, and events that had happened in their villages. He is clearly well supplied with information he can use to try to discredit witnesses. When they testified that soldiers and police had come to their villages to drive them out, Milosevic said that it was the guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army that had been there, and that the government security forces had only come in pursuit of them. The Kosovars then replied that they didn’t know that guerrillas were present. Contemptuously Milosevic said: “Well, let’s talk about something you do know about.”


In fact only a very small minority of Serbs, mostly Belgrade liberals, support the Hague trials or want anything to do with international efforts to bring their former leaders to justice. At the beginning of the trial, however, polls showed that large numbers of them were watching it. According to a poll in the popular weekly magazine Nin, 41.6 percent of those surveyed gave their former leader “five out of five” for his performance so far. Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, the head of Belgrade’s Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, told me that the prosecution’s opening statements contained errors and that the testimony of the first witness, Bakalli, seemed weak. “People are starting to celebrate Milosevic’s ‘excellent role’ in defending himself like a ‘real Serb,'” she said. “Of course, they really blame Milosevic for losing the war, not for starting it.”


Ms. Kovacevic-Vuco, like other Serbs who support the tribunal, fears that unless the prosecution can do a better job, their campaign for legal accountability, far from being vindicated, will be badly damaged. One of the main arguments in favor of the war crimes tribunal was that Serbs should face up to the enormity of the crimes committed in their name. So far this isn’t happening. The trial is broadcast live, and victims are telling their stories for all to hear; but Milosevic is mocking and denigrating them with some success.

Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian premier, says that he is greatly concerned about the progress of the trial. He told me he thought that the court was “unserious” and that it was giving an impression of “low credibility,” with witnesses “unprepared and confused.” Last spring Djindjic took a major political risk when he insisted on Milosevic’s arrest and extradition to The Hague. This literally paid off when the US and Europeans immediately rewarded him by giving his country generous amounts of financial aid. Now, he says, he is under pressure from Western nations to round up more of the people indicted in The Hague and extradite them, just at the moment that many Serbs, 75 percent according to one poll, believe that the tribunal, just as they expected, is an anti-Serb kangaroo court.

“My concern,” Djindjic told me, “is that the trial can change the pro-Western mood in this country. People become cynical.” He says that the tribunal is seen as a Western institution, like NATO, which bombed Serbia and destroyed many of its bridges but also claimed to have inflicted huge damage on the Yugoslav army, a claim that was never substantiated. So, he says, people end up believing that the tribunal, publicized as an institution representing democracy and the West, is not serious: it is “a bit of talk, a bit of manipulation but without much substance.” And by giving that impression, the tribunal risks creating a political backlash in Serbia. Djindjic did not say what everyone knows: that as prime minister of the Republic of Serbia he is locked in a political struggle with Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president, and the tribunal threatens his chances to prevail. While Djindjic is a pragmatist and modernizer, Kostunica, who has publicly deplored the tribunal from the first, represents a far more traditionalist, conservative Serbia. Djindjic fears that the tribunal’s failings will play into Kostunica’s hands.

Kostunica’s supporters now feel vindicated. The president’s adviser on foreign affairs, Predrag Simic, told me that he thought the prosecution’s opening case against Milosevic had been crude, that Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor, had tried portraying the Serbs as Nazis and Milosevic as Hitler. According to Simic, when del Ponte described in court the infamous 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy, which attacked what it called “genocide” against the Serbs in Kosovo, she spoke of it as if it were Mein Kampf. All of this enabled Milosevic to present himself as a modern counterpart of Georgi Dimitrov, the Bulgarian Communist leader who was falsely accused by the Nazis of setting fire to the Reichstag in 1933. The problem with such “phony justice,” Simic said, is that it tempts people “to fall in love with Milosevic again.”

Although Milosevic fell from power some eighteen months ago, his specter is still a heavy presence in Serbian and Yugoslav politics. A huge amount of government time and energy has been spent on dealing with Montenegro, which nominally, if nothing else, is the second republic within what, for the next couple of months at least, is still called Yugoslavia. But the Yugoslav government contains ministers from Montenegro who were once Milosevic loyalists. They want no more government cooperation with the tribunal. Djindjic, for his part, needs to send more indicted Serbs to The Hague if he is to continue getting foreign aid.

Trying to devise a compromise that would not provoke a new political crisis and even the final unraveling of what remains of the state, Djindjic has been saying that he will round up some of the indicted Serbs but not General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army chief, even if he is still in Serbia. It would simply not be worth the political cost to him, he says, if young Serb policemen died in the attempt, killed by Mladic’s guards, who may be members or former members of the army. He told me: “We are trying to create a democratic state…and it takes time. Now they say you should do what 50,000 NATO troops did not do in Bosnia—it’s not fair.”

Djindjic has also ruled out extraditing Milan Milutinovic, who was indicted along with Milosevic for instigating war crimes in Kosovo, and who also still happens to be president of Serbia. If it were held by anyone else, this would be the most powerful job in the country. So, if he were extradited now, there would have to be an election for president and Kostunica might well choose to contest it, and win. Still, predicting the future has become almost impossible with everything now up for grabs. On March 14 Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, succeeded in getting Serbian and Montenegrin leaders as well as President Kostunica to sign an agreement that, if passed by the parliaments of Serbia, Montenegro, and Yugoslavia, would, on paper, create—at least for a period of three years—a country simply called Serbia and Montenegro.

If this actually happens—and it is a big question whether it will—it is far from clear what Kostunica would choose to do, especially if constitutional changes in Serbia itself reduce the power of the presidency. Whether or not Kostunica eventually presides over a very loose union called Serbia and Montenegro, he would still have a strong following. The conflict between Djindjic and Kostunica was evident in the arrest by the military police, also on March 14, of one of Serbia’s deputy premiers along with an American diplomat on suspicion of espionage.

One theory was that the diplomat was collecting military evidence that could be used against Milosevic at the tribunal. Djindjic condemned the arrest but Kostunica, who is backed by the military, defended it. The two men were released, but Kostunica’s supporters in the army had shown the kind of force they could use. The minister in question was forced to resign.

Milosevic, for his part, can use the weapon of embarrassment. He may make much of the fact that when, in May 1993, he tried to help end the war in Bosnia along the lines of the Vance-Owen plan, he was accused of treachery and worse—by, in fact, Djindjic and Kostunica.


After hearing about the failures of the tribunal in Belgrade, attending it in The Hague is a sobering experience. When the court was created by the UN Security Council in 1993, no one took it very seriously and certainly no one then considered indicting Milosevic himself. Now it seems likely that the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, recently alleged to be hiding in the mountains of Montenegro, will soon join him. However, NATO forces in Bosnia, still smarting from their failure to capture Karadzic inside Bosnia on February 28 and March 1, are not allowed into Montenegro.

Among the first people I met at the Hague court was Florence Hartmann, the French spokeswoman of Carla del Ponte and the author of a biography of Milosevic. During the war in Bosnia, which we both covered as correspondents, we sometimes worked together. Since she knows Belgrade well, I asked her if she was disappointed by the kind of reaction I had encountered there. She angrily replied: “This is not the Olympic Games and there are no gold medals every day. It is not a football game with a winner. You have to build a case which is beyond any reasonable doubt and that takes weeks and months.” Was she disappointed that, so far, the sometimes horrific testimony of the witnesses about Serbian police and army persecution did not seem to be getting through to people in Serbia? “Well,” she said, “we can’t put loudspeakers in the street to oblige people to listen to what happened to the victims. It takes time. Anyway, that’s a philosophical point, not a legal one.”

I then asked Ms. del Ponte what she made of the charges coming from Belgrade that the trial was worse than ineffectual, that it was giving Milosevic a chance to star as a victim. She replied: “We have a strategy of how to proceed. I can understand how, from the outside, for the public, it is not what was expected, but we can’t change our strategy to please the public. My task is to present our case and to secure the conviction and sentencing of Milosevic.” She appeared unperturbed by the reactions from Belgrade. Some Serbs have argued, for example, that it is all very well for Milosevic to be made to answer for crimes in Kosovo; but why has not a single Kosovo Albanian leader been publicly indicted for the murders of Serbs and others? Indeed Milosevic has also made great play of alleged bin Laden connections in Bosnia and at least one trial of a Bosnian Muslim general is expected to concentrate on murders committed by radical Islamists, some of whom may have had connections with bin Laden.

Is it true, I asked Ms. del Ponte, that she is looking into the cases of Hashim Thaci, the former political head of the KLA, its former military chief Agim Ceku, and a number of others who are alleged to have presided over crimes against Serbs? Unsurprisingly she wouldn’t give me any names, but told me that investigations of “high responsible” Kosovo Albanians are ongoing and that indictments can be expected “within months.” But if she did indict “high responsible” Kosovo Albanian politicians who now hold considerable power in Kosovo, might that not risk destabilizing the region? Was that not a factor she would have to take into account? She answered simply: “No—I cannot.” After all, she said, this consideration certainly did not enter into her calculations when it came to Serbia or Croatia—so why should Kosovo be different?

A few minutes’ walk away from Ms. del Ponte’s office, in another part of the building, Slobodan Milosevic was grilling a witness, Qamil Shabani, a Kosovo Albanian. During Shabani’s testimony Milosevic yawned, looked at his watch, slung his arm over the back of his chair, and scribbled notes. He kept catching the eye of Zdenko Tomanovic, one of his legal advisers from Belgrade, and they would smirk at each other knowingly. Shabani had been explaining how, during the NATO bombing, the people in his region had been kicked out by the Serbs or had fled. Now Milosevic rounded on him: “You said the Serbian population were preparing to liquidate the Albanian population. Were you yourself liquidated?” Shabani explained that he was in a convoy that had been fired upon as it left. Milosevic insisted: “So, you were liquidated?” This type of caustic humor is certainly part of the reason that Milosevic is scoring points back home.

Milosevic, who refuses to recognize the legality of the tribunal, has no official defense team and so conducts his own defense in court. But lawyers like Tomanovic are helping him. When Milosevic finds out who the prosecution is calling as a witness, he gives Tomanovic the names, and a team back in Belgrade finds out as much as possible about the person or the region that he comes from. According to the Serbian press Milosevic probably has access to military and police intelligence files from the years when he was in office, and this is helping him to put up a spirited defense. Is the prosecution worried? They will not say so on the record, but they are evidently delighted by what they regard as Milosevic’s self-defeating strategy. The reactions in Belgrade don’t seem to concern them. They believe the more detailed information Milosevic comes up with, the better it will eventually be for them. Milosevic, they say, will not be able to claim credibly that he knew nothing or had no influence on what happened.


The Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milosevic is the case everyone is interested in, but other trials are taking place daily. I went to watch the trial of four men charged with crimes against humanity that took place in Bosanski Samac, a small northern Bosnian town, mostly in 1992 and 1993. Here there were no political denunciations of “NATO aggression,” no feeling, as with the Albanians, that, as witnesses, they have come to fight for Kosovo’s independence in The Hague. The courtroom was oval-shaped and the judges sat on an elevated platform behind their computer screens. The setup looked familiar and then I realized that it reminded me of the flight deck of Star Trek’s USS Enterprise.

As I watched I found it difficult to connect what I was listening to with my own experiences of what happened on the ground in Bosnia. I had, for instance, once seen the body of Selma Mejra, a seven-year-old girl, a few hours after she was killed by a Serbian paramilitary group that raided her village of Hranca, in eastern Bosnia, on May 3, 1992. It seemed impossible to reconcile what happened that day, and on many, many others, with what is happening in this remote courtroom in Holland. But then, as the Bosanski Samac trial went on, I also had the feeling that, if this was like a spacecraft, it was also slowly but surely coming in to land. I heard a witness recalling what a friend had said after he had been beaten up by one of the defendants. “I was beaten,” he said, “by Milan Simic, and he came to my pizzeria so many times and I bought him so many drinks!”

Yes, I thought, that is what it was like. People talked about their amazement at the way their neighbors had turned on them and had been pleased when they suffered or died. But Slobodan Milosevic says he had nothing to do with it.

—March 27, 2002

This Issue

April 25, 2002