The Milosevic account

Eric Gordy
17 March 2006

Slobodan Milosevic was a challenge to justice from the beginning, but he was always good for criminals. In death as in life.

He passed away later than many people would have hoped, but too early to allow the tribunal to reach a verdict on the charges filed against him, for gross violations of international humanitarian law. Inevitably, the conditions of his passing damage the tribunal: why did the prosecutors supplement their charges with historical claims that no legal institution could hope to adjudicate? Why was he permitted to conduct an inept self-defence that dragged out over several years? How was he given access to debilitating drugs which counteracted his prescribed treatment and, intentionally or not, facilitated his death?

Eric Gordy is associate professor of sociology at Clark University, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives (Penn State University Press, 1999)

It is a pattern familiar to people who observed him in power and out over the years. Beginning by saying one thing and doing another, he built a record of distancing himself from his own actions, from the actions of people he abetted, from the results of his engagement, and when he had nothing left, from himself. When he claimed in his final letter to have been defending his country, he was continuing a long habit of transferring responsibility for his own behaviour to other people and to the whole society.

But no regime can sustain itself without accomplices, and nobody is willing to become an accomplice unless somebody benefits. Milosevic may have demolished the Serbian middle class and put the working class out of work, but he has left one lasting legacy: a new criminal class that owes its position entirely to him. To see who they are, pay attention to who shows up for his funeral in Pozarevac on 18 March. The vast majority of Serbs will skip it.

A memorial was published in the newspapers Blic and Vecernje novosti on 14 March, signed by thirty-four of Milosevic's fellow detainees in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) holding facility in Scheveningen. They saluted the memory of their "fellow fighter" in The Hague. Shortly thereafter, detainees began making demands of the prison authorities. They want the United Nations Security Council to appoint a special commission to investigate their living conditions.

Milan Martic, the former low-ranking police officer who became president of the "Republic of Serbian Krajina" and sent missiles into the centre of Zagreb before fleeing ahead of the people who were soon to made refugees, lamented: "I am sick. I demand to be seen by a doctor and for my diet to be managed." These are people who have a good deal in common even if they do not share the same nationality – above all, they have in common the expectation that their comfort will be looked after by people for whom they care not a bit.

Also in openDemocracy after the death of Slobodan Milosevic on 11 March 2006:

Misha Glenny, "Milosevic's last victory"

Tom Gallagher, "Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq"

Dusan Velickovic, "Milosevic and I"

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic"

Marko Attila Hoare, "Slobodan Milosevic: the spirit of the age"

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility"

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And what of the people who saw to their comfort? The daily paper Blic ran a feature on 14 March with reactions from people whose lives were touched by Milosevic.

Ivica Lazovic, who was shot in the head by a Milosevic supporter during a catastrophic attempt to disrupt the massive antiregime demonstrations in 1996, contrasts his fate with the life of the man who died in custody: "I am at peace with honest people and with God, and as always, an enemy of malicious people, bandits and thieves. I sleep peacefully."

Dusan Vukovic, who demonstratively refused to accept from Milosevic a posthumous military medal for his son who was killed in the Kosovo conflict, notes that Milosevic "died very pleasantly considering all he did."

Now will come a controversy, well justified, regarding the kind of medical attention Milosevic received and the source of the rifampicin that may have brought on his fatal heart attack. It will be impossible for the managers of the ICTY detention facility to escape some blame for his fate – even in the best case, they are at least guilty of negligence. The inevitable scandal will, once again, draw attention away from the character of Milosevic's rule.

Nobody will compare the medical attention he received to the care shown to Ivan Stambolic, Slavko Ćuruvija, the people kidnapped off a train and massacred in Strpci, the people kidnapped off a bus and massacred in Sjeverin, the people shot with their hands bound behind their backs in Srebrenica, the people whose bodies were dumped into the river near Tekija, the people whose bodies were moved to a secret mass grave in Batajnica, and whose bodies were incinerated at Mackatica.

The sleep of reason creates monsters. If no governing authority offers a serious account of the balance of Milosevic's life, the people whose social prominence depended on his rule will. The criminals he cultivated may well return to power, the members of his family may return to public life, and his memory may begin to be venerated, both by people whose lives he destroyed and by outsiders who imagine him to have been a warrior against imperialism. If he were alive, Milosevic would appreciate the irony.

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