ANALYSIS: The Courtroom Summit

Milosevic and Mesic exchange verbal punches in a re-run of their fiery exchanges on the eve of the Balkan conflict.

ANALYSIS: The Courtroom Summit

Milosevic and Mesic exchange verbal punches in a re-run of their fiery exchanges on the eve of the Balkan conflict.

Biljana Plavsic, former president of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, RS, may have stolen the show last week with her unexpected and dramatic guilty plea (see Courtsides), but the week's highlight was undoubtedly the three-day "Croatian-Serbian" summit in Courtroom Number One.

The summit, pitting Slobodan Milosevic against Stjepan Mesic, the Croatian head of state, effectively marked the resumption of the fiery debates they had just as federal Yugoslavia began its descent into conflict in the early Nineties.

At the time, Milosevic was the president of Serbia and Mesic was the president of the old federation who famously boasted that he would be its last.

The former's cross-examination of the latter last week offered valuable insights into the content and quality of the political debate in the early 1990s, which then involved the fractious leaders of the six Yugoslav republics.

The arguments heard in the courtroom were identical to those used at the time. Milosevic and Mesic rowed about "the constituent elements" of the old federation, whether sovereignty and the right of secession belong to the republic or the people and whether the state should have been reorganised as a "loose confederation" or a "compact federation".

They argued again about who precipitated the break-up of the country. Was it Milosevic with his 1989 speech, in which he predicted "new battles, maybe even armed battles", or was it Croatia's late president Franjo Tudjman, when he erased Serbs from the new Croatian constitution a year later?

The tone of the courtroom "summit" resembled the debates of the leaders of the six republics a decade ago. It was, in other words, offensive and often derogatory, although not as bad as the exchanges of the early Nineties - since the former was held before the eyes of the world while the latter took place behind closed doors.

The level of argument last week illustrated why it was so difficult to imagine, let alone achieve, a political solution to the Yugoslav crisis.

"We all took part in the destruction of Yugoslavia," Mesic admitted in a moment of sincerity, although he placed most of the blame on Milosevic who "was not interested in Yugoslavia, either federal or confederal, (but) only in a Greater Serbia built on the remains of Yugoslavia".

Mesic said the defendant started "breaking up Yugoslavia" in the late Eighties when he suspended the autonomy of the provincies of Kosovo and Vojvodina and instigated a change of government in Montenegro, thereby taking control of four of the eight votes in the federal presidency, the country's collective head of state.

With the votes of Serbia, Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro in his pocket, Milosevic still did not have a majority, as Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia remained opposed. But he could thwart any decisions he did not approve of. In May 1991, he temporarily blocked Mesic becoming the next rotating head of the Yugoslav presidency.

The most important part of Mesic's testimony concerned the way Milosevic in 1991 acquired effective control of the federal presidency, which was the supreme commander of the Yugoslav National Army, the JNA.

Mesic said this huge army, then the fourth strongest in Europe, had perceived that the federation was in jeopardy and found a new "sponsor" in Milosevic. As non-Serb officers and soldiers left its ranks, the JNA became "Serbianized", and Milosevic, through the National Bank of Yugoslavia, NBJ, which he also placed under his control, funded it with foreign and domestic credits as well as federal foreign exchange reserves.

At the same time, Milosevic controlled the leaders of the Serbian parties founded in Croatia and Bosnia whose members were armed by the JNA or the Serbian secret police, which also organised "volunteers" and other paramilitary formations.

According to Mesic, the course of events in Croatia indicates there was a distinct pattern that was planned, organised and coordinated. KOS, the Yugoslav military counter-intelligence, provoked or invented incidents in Serb regions of Croatia. The JNA would then intervene with tanks and infantry nominally to "prevent conflicts" and to separate "the sides", even where no conflicts had taken place.

After a time, the JNA would then retreat, leaving local Serbs with arms and in control of the territory. But according to Mesic, Milosevic's primary target was not Croatia, nor even the parts of Croatia under Serbian control. Borisav Jovic, Milosevic's right hand in the federal presidency, made Mesic realise in 1991 that Belgrade was only interested in the "66 per cent of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina which used to be and will be Serbian".

After this remark, Mesic suggested a meeting between Milosevic and Tudjman to Jovic to seek solutions to Serbian-Croatian conflicts through negotiations. The initiative was accepted and the summit scheduled for March 25, 1991 at Tito's former hunting lodge in Karadjordjevo. Milosevic and Tudjman decided to meet alone without witnesses.

Last week, Mesic repeated what he had told the tribunal about this meeting on two previous occasions: in the trial of the former mayor of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic, and that of the Croatian general Tihomir Blaskic.

Tudjman had returned from Karadjordjevo delighted by Milosevic's "generosity". Tudjman told Mesic that Milosevic had offered him significant parts of Bosnia in which he was not interested, as they had formerly belonged to the short-lived pre-World War II "Croatian banovina", or to earlier "Turkish Croatia". Warnings that Milosevic would cheat him fell on deaf ears.

Mesic said Milosevic also double-crossed the Croatian Serbs, promising them "one state" with all the other Serbs, while in reality he needed them only as an "initial fuse" for his Bosnian campaign.

According to Mesic, the list of those Milosevic cheated included the Serbian and wider Yugoslav public, the JNA and the international community. They all were deluded by Milosevic's claims that he was "fighting for Yugoslavia... while in reality he was breaking Yugoslavia by all means available".

In his testimony, Mesic added new elements to the portrait of the accused provided in the Kosovo phase of the trial by some of the international witnesses, such as Lord Ashdown, ambassador William Walker and General Klaus Naumann. He described Milosevic as a man who "subordinated everything to his war objectives" and "used his associates as disposable items (discarding) them once they served their purpose".

Asked by the head of the prosecution team, Geoffrey Nice, whether he ever noticed that Milosevic had showed compassion either for his own people or others, Mesic replied, "I never, ever, saw any sign of emotions in him. All he had were goals that he was implementing."

Mesic's testimony, the first by an acting head of state in The Hague, provoked a fierce reaction from the defendant, who began acting as though he possessed compromising information that could discredit the witness. He alluded to Mesic's "activities" with an unidentified "third party" with whom he was in prison in the mid-1970s, accusing him of being a secret police collaborator who personally ordered "liquidations" and kidnappings of policemen and Serbs and was involved in people trafficking.

Mesic laughed at these accusations, noting that "the accused obviously had great imagination" and that he was no more involved in "liquidations" as he "was involved in Lincoln's assassination".

Milosevic offered no proof for his allegations. Instead, he moved onto political matters, claiming Mesic bore responsibility for Croatian army crimes in Bosnia in 1993, as he was president of Croatia's parliament at the time. Again he had no success - Mesic saying the post carried no executive power.

Judge Richard May interrupted Milosevic to ask what was the relevance of Croatian-Muslim conflict in Bosnia for the indictment which accused him, Milosevic, of crimes in Croatia. After that, Milosevic charged Mesic with "double treason", claiming he betrayed both Yugoslavia, while head of the federation's presidency, and then Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Union, by leaving the latter.

This first claim prompted Mesic to elaborate on some of his earlier remarks about the state of Yugoslavia in the early Nineties. The witness said at the time "everybody was dissatisfied with Yugoslavia" and that the "status quo could not be maintained ". Croatia, Slovenia, and later Bosnia and Macedonia, had suggested "a confederal model" but Milosevic had not wanted to hear about it, insisting on a "compact federation". This was unacceptable to everybody else, as Mesic said they knew they would have followed "the destiny of Kosovo and Vojvodina" in being placed under a Serbian "special regime".

Responding to the second claim, Mesic said he parted ways with Tudjman and the HDZ in early 1994 over their war policy in Bosnia, their privatisation methods and their resistance to the establishment of the rule of law.

The judges and audience then found themselves transported back to the start of the last decade, to one of the federal presidency or republican presidents' meetings, otherwise known as "travelling summits". They were forced to listen to long exchanges of accusations between the defendant and the witness over the sovereignty of the former Yugoslav republics, the right of peoples to self-determination and the pros and cons of confederal and federal systems.

The next item on the "courtroom summit" agenda were the actual crimes. The persecution of Serbs in Croatia, Milosevic said, began in the late Eighties and Mesic was president of "the first Croatian government that terrorised Serbian population".

Milosevic said it started when "Serbs were erased from the [Croatian] constitution" and "the Cyrillic alphabet was discarded". The Serbs were then fired en masse and other discriminatory measures applied. Finally, they were kidnapped, killed and detained in camps, which the defendant said once numbered over 200. He accused Mesic also of responsibility for attacks on the JNA.

Mesic denied Serbs in Croatia were terrorised or put in camps, though admitted that some abuses and crimes had gone unpunished.These issues needed addressing, he added, but were not an excuse for the destruction of Vukovar, Dubrovnik and other Croatian cities. Mesic said this was exactly what the JNA and paramilitary formations sent from Serbia and Montenegro did and these units were "under the control of the accused".

Mesic missed no chance to address Milosevic as "the accused" and seemed to take special pleasure in doing so. The only thing Milosevic and Mesic agreed on was that "the criminals should be punished". But they could not agree "who the criminals were". On several occasions, Mesic stressed that Milosevic was on trial and not him. Milosevic replied, "That is exactly the problem", claiming it was a case of a "mistaken thesis".

Milosevic obviously believed Mesic ought to have been sitting in the dock. Remarking that Mesic had testified against Tudjman and the HDZ, and had recently stated that General Janko Bobetko should be delivered to The Hague, Milosevic accused the Croatian president of "working for this illegal court" in order to avoid having to give any account of his own criminal responsibility. Declaring this question "inappropriate", Judge May concluded "The Hague summit" of the former president of Serbia and the current president of Croatia.

Mirko Klarin is IWPR senior editor at the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.

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