Milosevic's last victory

Misha Glenny
13 March 2006

It almost seems as though Slobodan Milosevic was playing the same type of games when dead as he did when alive. His death on 11 March 2006 will not have a shattering impact on issues concerning either the Hague tribunal (the "International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia" [ICTY], to give its formal title) or the complex challenges currently facing Serbia and the Balkans. But it does complicate both. And there was nothing that Milosevic enjoyed more in his life than bamboozling people.

Misha Glenny is a former BBC Central Europe correspondent who covered revolutions in eastern Europe and the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Among his books is The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999 (Penguin, 2001)

Also by Misha Glenny in openDemocracy:

"Elections in Macedonia: not many dead " (September 2002)

The tribunal does not emerge from the weekend's events looking very competent. When the Milosevic trial opened in February 2002, a number of commentators questioned the wisdom of bringing so many charges against him. The litany of crimes he faced in court promised a long trial, and given his heart condition (which has been a matter of public knowledge since the early 1990s), it seemed unwise to put him through this when the court could have chosen to nail him on two or three of the most significant charges.

In addition, the Hague's refusal to allow him to undergo specialist treatment in Moscow recently on the grounds that it was unnecessary and would have given him the opportunity to abscond now seems ill-judged and mean-spirited, even if it wasn't.

Serbian fugitives

Victims in Croatia and Bosnia seem to feel that his death robs them of the justice they were seeking. The Bosnians and Krajina Serbs were also similarly cheated by the death in December 1999 of the former Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman (indeed, Tudjman's death may have saved him from a Hague indictment). In respect to the victims, the chief prosecutor of the tribunal, Carla del Ponte, is right to insist that the chief war-criminal suspects currently at large, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, be delivered to the Hague immediately; this would be especially important for the families of the Bosnian victims of Srebrenica and other massacres. Although they do not bear Milosevic's overall political responsibility, Mladic and Karadzic were the biggest killers in the Yugoslav wars.

As Karadzic appears to be hiding on Bosnian and not Serbian territory, he falls outside the jurisdiction of Serbia. But Mladic is almost certainly in Belgrade. Neither man enjoys much popular support in Serbia but they are protected by powerful networks. In the case of Mladic, his primary supporters are in or close to Serbian military intelligence, a powerful outfit that retains a strong anti-western sentiment from the Tito period.

The Serbian government is under immense pressure from the west to hand over Mladic. The European Union has now threatened to pull out of negotiations that would eventually lead to EU membership for Serbia if Mladic is still at large by 5 April 2006. If the threat were carried out, it would be hugely damaging for Serbia but also for the stability of the "western Balkans" (diplomat-speak for the former Yugoslavia plus Albania but minus Slovenia and, more recently, Croatia). Some in the EU argue that it would be too damaging and so the punishment should be scaled down to a temporary suspension in negotiations instead of a rupture.

The United States, the Hague tribunal, and a number of human-rights NGOs are in turn applying considerable pressure on the EU to force the issue of Mladic with Serbia. The EU membership issue is the only real lever that the international community has on Serbia to persuade the government to nab Mladic. But it is a mighty lever.

For more on Slobodan Milosevic and the wars of ex-Yugoslavia in openDemocracy, see our "Reimagining Yugoslavia" debate, including:

Anthony Dworkin, "The trial of Milosevic: global law or war?"
(February 2002)

Alix Kroeger, "Bosnia's war of memory"
(August 2002)

Dejan Djokic, "The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (March 2003)

Ivan Krastev, "The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (June 2005)

Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life" (June 2005)

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (July 2005)

James Walston, "Kosovo: the end of the beginning"
(October 2005)

Andrew Wachtel, "The western Balkan outlook: beyond 2007" (November 2005)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The Vojislav Kostunica government in Belgrade does want to conclude the Mladic business and hand him over. But it wants to gain maximum publicity and benefit for it from the west, and it wants to execute the operation with as little fuss as possible in Serbia. For that reason, the government has been attempting to persuade Mladic to surrender – this would avoid the pitfalls that would be associated with a forced arrest of the former Bosnian Serb leader.

Milosevic's death will make life more difficult for the government. Mladic's backers will now try to convince him that it will be unsafe for him to go to The Hague (Milosevic is the fourth Serb to die in the tribunal's custody; two of the others were suicides). And if the nationalist opposition, the Radical Party (whose indicted leader Vojislav Seselj is in The Hague's custody, and upon whom Kostunica's minority government depends in parliament), decided to mobilise around this, it could cause serious difficulties elsewhere.

Serbia in fragments

For the delivery of Mladic is only one of three considerable challenges facing Serbia in the coming months. On 21 May, Montenegro will hold a referendum on independence. This is a complicated business but essentially Montenegro remains a divided society with strong pro-independence and pro-Serb communities. The European Union is doing all it can to prevent the break-up of the union of Serbia & Montenegro, but one cannot help feeling that this strategy is quixotic at best. De facto this ceased being a functioning state some time ago (if it ever was), and Serbia's foreign-policy relations and domestic economy would be much simpler if Montenegro left.

The European Union, however, fears the Montenegrin situation will muddy the waters in an area where the region faces its biggest challenge: Kosovo. Over the next few months, the international community hopes to resolve the issue of Kosovo's uncertain constitutional status, left unresolved by Nato's 1999 war which led to the expulsion of Serbian military forces without infringing Belgrade's formal jurisdiction over the territory. Quite the most likely outcome of all the deliberations will be Kosovo's independence. At the moment, the British government seems keen to push this solution as fast as it can with some support from the Americans, while the Italians, French, Germans and Russians (the six make up the key "contact group" on Kosovo) appear more cautious.

So the current Serbian government faces the prospect in a few short months of:

  • arresting and handing over Ratko Mladic
  • losing Montenegro
  • losing Kosovo.

This hardly amounts to a winning electoral strategy for the Kostunica government – which is why people are worried. There is a strong chance that the Radicals will emerge as the party that forms Serbia's next government, which would do few people inside or outside Serbia any favours.

In judicial and political terms, then, there isn't much solace to be had from Slobodan Milosevic's sudden departure. If the world has no reason to mourn, Milosevic's death leaves the Serbs he ruled as far as ever from a settled and prosperous future.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData