Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

ANALYSIS: Milosevic Creates His Own Reality

Tribunal is told that the former Serb president sees only what he wants to see.
By Mirko Klarin

Ambassador William Walker revealed last week how he acquired an intriguing insight into how Slobodan Milosevic views the world.

"My impression was that I was dealing with a person who felt that when he said something, that it made it true," he told the tribunal.

Walker was summing up not only his four previous meetings with the former Serb president in 1997 and 1998, but also the attitude of the accused over the four months of the trial.

In court, Milosevic acts like a man who believes that saying something will make it true. That belief may explain why he is so surprised and offended when the judges warn him that his words are "irrelevant opinions" or "commentaries" that he will have to prove when he comes to present his own evidence.

The former president was facing two western officials who were foremost among his enemies during the 1998-9 Kosovo crisis. The first, Ambassador Walker, is still high on this list, demonstrated by the fact that Milosevic has frequently referred to him as the man who "framed" him over the alleged Racak massacre in Kosovo that triggered NATO's 1999 air strikes against Serbia.

The defendant has said that he holds the second witness, General Klaus Naumann, "personally responsible" for that bombardment, as he presided over NATO's military committee at the time.

Both men had had frequent contact with Milosevic in the critical period of October 1998 to January 1999.

Walker went on to describe the former Serb premier as a man "not used to being contradicted", who became "defensive when criticised" and who seemed never to "doubt anything he said".

At the time, Walker was head of the Kosovo Verification Mission, KVM, an Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe body. It was charged with supervising the agreement Milosevic reached with US envoy Richard Holbrooke in October 1998, which had removed the immediate danger of NATO air strikes.

In December 1998, Walker had received a letter from the Yugoslav foreign ministry, which attacked the KVM and warned that its activities would not be tolerated.

Walker thought the letter violated the terms of the agreement and took his protest to the president. "What letter? There is no such letter," Milosevic allegedly replied when challenged.

The tribunal heard that when Walker produced a copy of the document, the defendant refused to even glance at it, exclaiming, "I haven't seen the letter. It does not exist!"

Another example of this mindset concerned a theme already touched upon by other witnesses - Milosevic's alleged obsession with the number of Kosovo Albanians.

Walker told the court that the common wisdom of the time held that Albanians comprised about 90 per cent of Kosovo's population. But at a meeting in October 1998, he said Milosevic went to great lengths to explain that this was not the case.

"By his calculation the Albanians numbered less than 50 per cent. I cannot believe he thought he was telling me the truth," said Walker.

This courtroom discussion allowed General Naumann to add an important detail to Walker's portrait of the accused.

Together with General Wesley Clark, then supreme allied commander in Europe, Naumann visited Milosevic on October 24 and 25, 1998 to deliver a NATO ultimatum. Unless the president withdrew 6,000 policemen from Kosovo and returned his army to barracks, air strikes would be launched.

After an agreement was reached and signed by the president, Naumann recalled how, over a relaxing drink of plum brandy, the conversation had turned to the number of Albanians in Kosovo.

The tribunal heard how the defendant and his deputy prime minister, Nikola Sainovic, stated any solution to the Kosovo crisis had to include "a balance between the two ethnic groups".

Naumann said Milosevic then announced that he would "try to find a solution for the problem" the following spring. When the two foreign generals asked what he had in mind, the president allegedly answered, "We do the same [that] we did in Drenica in 1945-46 ... We lined them up and we shot them."

This was a reference to the action of the Partisan army, which employed brutal means in Kosovo to crush rural resistance to the province's re-incorporation into Serbia at the end of the Second World War, after years as part of an enlarged Albania under Italian rule.

Asked by Judge O-Gon Kwon of Korea how he and Clark reacted to this, Naumann replied, "We did not react. We were simply astonished."

Naumann had homed in on an important character trait in the accused, which complements Walker's own description. When relaxed, after a few drinks, Milosevic likes to "astonish" people either with generous gestures or drastic threats - even if it means saying more than he should.

In the cross examination of these witnesses, the defendant remained true to his inquisitorial style, often concentrating on peripheral issues and only touching on the essence of their testimonies after warnings from the judges.

Having questioned numerous prosecution witnesses over four months on what he refers to as "Walker's Racak conspiracy", and with Walker himself on the stand, the former president only asked direct questions on this subject during the last 10 minutes of a three-and-a-half hour long cross examination.

When the questions were put in Milosevic's usual style, insisting that things were true by the virtue of his saying so, Judge Richard May intervened and asked Walker several direct questions concerning the allegations that he or his mission had formed part of a "conspiracy to cause NATO intervention".

Walker denied this, and repeated his opinion that the events in Racak constituted a "massacre".

When cross-examining Naumann, the defendant addressed his alleged quote about using the "Drenica model" to solve the Kosovo crisis only after Judge Patrick Robinson insisted he did so, saying it was "important" as it showed the "mens rea", or intention, of the accused.

Milosevic replied that it was "absurd" and that he would never have said anything like it, as the sentence was "historically inaccurate" because the Albanians in Drenica "were not simply lined up and shot down". In fact, the defendant said, the Yugoslav army was carrying out operations against "remaining fascist groups".

The ex-president then offered the tribunal "convincing proof" that Naumann was not telling the truth - on October 25, 1998 "they were not drinking plum brandy", as Naumann said, but "pear brandy".

Naumann excused his "ignorance" over the variety of spirits but insisted the accused had made the Drenica statement, which was later quoted in a book by General Clark. When the judges returned to this point several times, Naumann replied on each occasion that he was "absolutely sure" about it.

The fact that the judges stuck to the theme with such determination shows how intrigued they were by this window that had been opened into the mind and intentions of Milosevic.

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

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


More IWPR's Global Voices