How the U.S. Scapegoated Milosevic for Yugoslavia’s Ethnic Wars
By James Bissett
“I was in Belgrade as Canada’s ambassador during the critical early stages of the Yugoslav breakup drama, and I was not prepared to remain silent about what I observed.”
Slobodan Milosevic’s obituaries are damning. In death, as in the last years of his life, the former Serbian president is being blamed for all of the death and destruction that accompanied the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation in the early 1990s. He has been described as the “Butcher of the Balkans.” He is accused of masterminding four wars, of committing genocide and ethnic cleansing. These charges have been repeated so many times that they have become part of received wisdom. Yet the facts tell a different story.
Two weeks ago I traveled to The Hague to appear as a witness in defense of Milosevic at his war-crimes trial. We met in his cell for two days, going over my testimony.
On the first day, he seemed relaxed and in good health. On the second day, following several hours of discussions, he suddenly became flushed and appeared to be ill. I asked if he was alright, and he said he was OK, but then explained that he suffered from a terrible ringing in his ears. The prison doctors had told him it was “psychological,” but finally agreed to a MRI, which revealed that an abnormal artery was affecting his hearing. He told me he did not believe he was getting adequate medical attention in the prison, and wanted to get specialist treatment in Moscow, but tribunal officials had refused.
He regarded the presiding body—the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia—as a political court set up to make him the scapegoat for everything that had gone wrong in Yugoslavia. He was aware that there was, in effect, a Western news blackout of anything revealed during the trial that was favorable to his case. And he was also resigned to the reality that he would be found guilty.
I have been asked often why I was willing to appear as a witness for a man branded by the media as another Hitler. The answer is simple. His prosecution was the most important war-crimes trial since the Nuremberg Trials of leading Nazis following the Second World War. It was important that the presumption of innocence be maintained, and it was equally important that those with relevant information appear at the court so that their evidence could be heard. I was in Belgrade as Canada’s ambassador during the critical early stages of the Yugoslav breakup drama, and I was not prepared to remain silent about what I observed.
Even in the early days, it was apparent that most of the media reporting about the cause and course of the Yugoslav fighting was biased. In effect, the Serbs had been branded as the bad guys, and any news developments were interpreted on that basis.
But it was not the Serbians and “Slobo” who started the wars in Yugoslavia. The fighting started because Slovenia, then a Yugoslav republic, declared unilateral independence and used force to seize customs posts along the Austrian border.
The federal prime minister of Yugoslavia, Ante Markovic, who happened to be a Croatian, ordered the army into Slovenia to restore order. The army was met by armed resistance and retired to barracks in Croatia to avoid further bloodshed. The Croatian security and paramilitary forces then surrounded the federal barracks and fighting broke out in Croatia. At this time, Milosevic, as president of Serbia, had no control over the federal army. (Incidentally, the federal minister of defense at the time was also a Croatian, as was the foreign minister.)
Later, when the army lost all of its non-Serbian soldiers, it did become a Serb-dominated force. But when the federal government collapsed, it was none other than Milosevic who ordered all Serbian soldiers out of Bosnia. (At the time I was asked to call upon him to congratulate him for this decision.) From the outset of the violence sweeping across Yugoslavia, Milosevic was a key player in all of the peace plans that were proposed. Had it not been for him, the 1995 Dayton peace agreement could not have taken place. He was heralded then by U.S. secretary of state Madeline Albright as a man of peace.
Although the war-crimes Tribunal was set up in 1993, it was not until the bombing of Kosovo five years later that a hurried indictment was issued against Milosevic on charges of genocide. Yet the forensic teams that searched for evidence of this genocide in Kosovo have so far discovered fewer than 3,000 bodies—bad enough, but not genocide.
Milosevic was a Communist Party boss. He was an apparatchik and an opportunist interested in holding onto his power, prestige, and privileges. He was not an ardent Serbian nationalist and I believe had little interest in a “greater Serbia.” As the president of Serbia, he was forced to display sympathy to his fellow Serbians in Bosnia and Croatia, but he did not have authority over them. He was prepared to help them battle brutally for land and power, but he was also prepared to sell them out if it was to his own advantage.
There are many Serbians who despise him for that. It is unfortunate that he died before being given the chance to set down his side of the story. Now we only have his opponents’ version of events.
—www.canada.com, March 15, 2006