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ANALYSIS: Milosevic Shows His Cards

Slobodan Milosevic may live to regret divulging his defence strategy in his mammoth opening address at the tribunal
By Mirko Klarin

The problem of Slobodan Milosevic - or, to be more precise, the problem with Slobodan Milosevic - is not that he claims two and two are five. (Other politicians have tried and are still trying, with some success, to persuade their voters to believe the same thing.)


No, in Milosevic's case, the problem is that he truly believes it, or gives a convincing impression he believes it. While he was in power, he certainly managed to convince many of his subjects it was true. Now he is trying to persuade the rest of the world from The Hague courtroom.


For three days, Milosevic exposed the tribunal and millions of televison viewers to a concentrated dose of the kind of rhetoric he subjected Serbia to for 13 years. His audience probably understands a little more than it did before how Milosevic implanted myths about the Serbs' innocence and victim status so deeply in the minds of his subjects, and persuaded them that they were the greatest victims of the "global conspiracy" that broke up former Yugoslavia.


After finding himself alone in the dock, accused of genocide in Bosnia and crimes against humanity in Croatia and Kosovo, Milosevic is attempting to persuade the court and the international public of this. At the same time, he is trying to correct what he considers to be revisionist versions of the same myths, which have taken root since October 2000, namely that the Serbs themselves are the greatest and - of course - the innocent - victims of Slobodan Milosevic.


Milosevic is trying to convince the whole world that the wars and war crimes committed in former Yugoslavia had nothing to do with him, or with Serbian policy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Instead, he blames the disintegration of the old federation on "Germany's revenge" against Serbia for the Serbs' role in defeating it in two world wars.


Borrowing from Marx's famous introductory sentence in The Communist Manifesto about the ghost of revolution hovering over Europe (which is most likely a contribution of his wife, a professor of Marxism, Mira Markovic), Milosevic warned the world that the "ghost of neo-colonialism and neo-Nazism hovers over the crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo". The aim of this all, he added, was the "redrawing of the map of the Balkans and the creation of Greater Albania".


From Marx, Milosevic moved on to Jesus Christ, saying he had been "crucified for resistance to that new colonialism", and that Serbia had been bombed because of it. Switching deftly from the role of accused to prosecutor, Milosevic borrowed formulas from his own indictments to accuse NATO of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed from March 24, 1999 to the present day.


As if he were reading an indictment, Milosevic singled out NATO, member states and other countries that "indirectly helped commit crimes" as well as heads of states, defence ministers, the NATO secretary-general, the military commanders and others who "gave the orders" for them.


As we envisaged after the first pre-trial conference in December (Tribunal Update No 248), Milosevic accused them all of undertaking a "joint criminal enterprise" against Serbia. He immediately submitted the "material evidence" in the form of two German TV films, which disputed claims that Serbian forces committed massacres in Kosovo, and several hundred photographs, showing the victims and consequences of NATO's air strikes.


He then dictated a list of witnesses he wanted called, starting with Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, Gerhard Schroeder, Helmut Kohl, Lamberto Dini, Kofi Annan, and all the negotiators at Dayton, Ohio and the participants at the Paris Conference, where the Bosnian peace agreement was signed in December 1995.


The three-day tirade suggested the chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte was right on target when she described Milosevic's discourse in her opening statement as comprising "grandiloquent rhetoric and hackneyed phrases". Following opening statements from the prosecution troika, namely Del Ponte, Geoffrey Nice and Dirk Ryneveld, one lawyer involved in another case before the tribunal noted that his legal advice to Milosevic would have been to "sit and be silent".


Presiding judge Richard May also cautioned Milosevic before he began to speak, about his right "to remain silent", warning him that what he said "may be relevant for the case", that is, may be used against him.


In his rhetorical flood, Milosevic has probably revealed a fair amount that might be used against him, starting with the way he talked of his role as supreme commander, about the chain of command in the army and police, and when he denied the existence of paramilitary units, claiming they were only "volunteers" under Yugoslav Army, VJ, command.


He slipped out the detail, for example, that the "Serb volunteers crossed the Drina...in order to help their brothers in Bosnia". And after the prosecution's description of crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, he said "any drunken fool may shoot someone in a civil war". He may later regret utterances such as these.


But that wasn't the only reason why Milosevic would have been wiser sitting and remaining silent. It was also because in his three-day address, he showed almost all his cards, much to the delight of the prosecution attentively following every word.


More than 90 per cent of counsels for tribunal indictees in previous cases have made use of their right to present their opening statements after they've heard all the prosecution's evidence. In this way they don't reveal how they intend to defend their clients.


In Milosevic's case, the prosecution now knows what lies ahead from the start and can adjust its proving procedure accordingly. Milosevic's Socialists won Serbia's first multi-party elections in December 1989 with the slogan: "There's no uncertainty with us", which was true enough, as conflict was indeed already certain. Four wars and several hundred thousand victims later, there is no uncertainty either for the tribunal prosecution regarding Milosevic's defence.


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