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ANALYSIS: Milosevic Trial Witness Under Attack

Key Serb witness accused in Serbia of lying about his links with Milosevic.
By Mirko Klarin

The biggest question hanging over a key Serbian "insider" to testify in the trial of the former Yugoslav president concerns the character of the witness rather than the contents of his testimony.


Ratomir Tanic, who gave evidence over three days last week, introduced himself as former activist in the New Democracy party, ND, which from 1995 to 1997 was in coalition with Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia, SPS, and the Yugoslav Left, JUL, run by the defendant's wife, Mira Markovic.


Tanic, who resumed his testimony on Tuesday, said he had acted on behalf of Serbia's secret police, the National Security Agency, SDB, adding that from 1993 until the end of the decade he also maintained "operative contacts" with British, Italian and Russian intelligence services.


In October 1999, he claims unknown persons kidnapped him and his wife and held them for two days in "a private prison" where they underwent "Latin American style" torture, during which they were drugged and forced to confess their role in a British intelligence plot against Milosevic, then Yugoslav head of state.


After that, the witness alleged, he left the country. At first he received some financial help from Hungary's information ministry and from British intelligence (to the tune of 2-3,000 euro, he said) before contacting The Hague tribunal. He then joined a "relocation" programme and assumed a new identity and place of residence.


To prevent the disclosure of his true identity to his new neighbours, his face is distorted in television coverage of the trial - although he testifies under his real name.


His testimony generally confirms what informed sources may have already known about Milosevic's "modus operandi", but which now needs proving before the court.


His story started in 1995, when the defendant, then president of Serbia, having proclaimed "no alternative to peace", signed the Dayton peace agreement over Bosnia and gave the green light for a "discreet political dialogue" to start with Kosovo Albanian leaders. The goal was to prevent the internationalisation of the Kosovo crisis.


The manner in which this "discreet dialogue" was conducted fits what is known of Milosevic's "modus operandi" perfectly. Negotiations with the Kosovars were organised at a level that placed no obligation on the defendant, and in such manner that they could easily be dismissed as nothing more than "a dialogue between intellectuals", which is just how Milosevic described them last week.


Tanic alleged he took part in these dialogues with the direct blessing of his own party, the SDB and Milosevic. He said the accused personally approved "the platform" for the negotiations, which he and Dusan Mihjalovic, the ND president, suggested.


In mid-1997, Tanic said the negotiators came close to a political solution based on "broad autonomy" for Kosovo when Milosevic suddenly changed tack and became obsessed with the number of Albanians in Kosovo. Tanic said Milosevic once told him he would "prove there are less than a million Kosovo Albanians", meaning they comprised less than 10 per cent of Serbia's population and thus did not warrant "broad autonomy".


At the time, Tanic said, Albanians numbered 1.2 to 1.5 million in the province. The witness said the only option to get this figure down to under one million was to apply the same ethnic cleansing methods that had been tried in Croatia and Bosnia.


In his cross-examination, Milosevic denied saying anything of the sort to Tanic, though he said Albanian numbers in Kosovo was "a hot topic in Serbia" at the time, and that he had accepted as "realistic" the figure of "under one million". He said the size of the community was only important because their mass participation was expected in the autumn 1997 presidential elections, though this was unrealistic - as they had boycotted all previous Serbian ballots.


Tanic said that by the end of February 1998, police and army operations against Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, "terrorists" were underway. Tanic discerned a distinct "pattern" in these events. At first "minor" Serbian losses were allowed, such as the killing of a few policemen or civilians, as it paved the way for the use of "indiscriminate and disproportionate force" in which Albanian civilians were killed alongside KLA militants.


Tanic said such tactics worried the secret police head, Jovica Stanisic, and the army chief of staff, Momcilo Perisic. To get round them Tanic alleged that Milosevic established a "private chain of command" and that with the aid of Hague detainee Nikola Sainovic, deputy federal prime minister and his "right hand" in Kosovo, he had some military and police units placed under his own command.


A letter that Perisic sent Milosevic in mid-1998, which Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice included as evidence with help of the witness, confirmed this. In it, the general protested against a "constant tendency" towards the "illegal deployment" of army units, the placing of them "under the command of incompetent persons" and the use by the police of military weapons and equipment.


Perisic and Stanisic were sacked soon after, as part of the preparations to slice the number of Albanians to below a million. Knowing this might trigger NATO intervention, Milosevic was determined to remove "defeatists" who claimed Yugoslavia could not fight a war against the "rest of the world".


Tanic's testimony confirms the suspicion of many observers that in 1999 Milosevic, President of Serbia Milan Milutinovic (also indicted but still at his post) and others were virtually "calling for NATO bombardment".


He alleged he was present when the Serbian deputy premier, Vladimir Stambuk, in presence of the British and German ambassadors, actually said Serbia had "nothing against a small scale-bombardment by NATO". Tanic said that when he objected, Stambuk had replied that "small-scale bombing" would give Belgrade an "excellent excuse" to deal with the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbian opposition as they wished.


The witness's testimony also confirms the impression that some NATO leaders were keener to halt the bombing than Milosevic was himself. Milosevic's strategy, Tanic said, was "to prolong the war to procure a moral victory over NATO on the basis of civilian casualties". He said he was present when the defendant told Vuk Draskovic, then deputy Yugoslav prime minister, on the telephone that "it was too early for an end to the conflict, because new civilian casualties were needed to show that NATO was a criminal organisation".


That last claim highlights the dilemma surrounding Tanic's testimony - namely his own character. In an earlier written statement given to the prosecution, the witness originally said Milosevic said these words in a "face to face" meeting with him. Before taking the stand, Tanic then altered his statement to claim he heard the phrase about "civilian casualties" in a telephone conversation he had with the accused. Finally, when giving testimony, he said Milosevic had not used these words to him but to Vuk Draskovic on the telephone, while he listened in on "a speakerphone".


Milosevic responded in more than five hours of cross-examination by claiming he had never even met Tanic. His attempt to discredit the character and credibility of the witness was boosted when Dusko Mihajlovic, the ND president and now Serbian interior minister in the ruling DOS coalition, denied the witness had ever been a ND party member. In a statement, the party said Tanic had never been more than "a supporter" and had never represented the party in any negotiations on Kosovo.


The ND's moves to distance itself from Tanic's are hardly surprising. The party was widely seen as a Milosevic "decoy" that was heavily infiltrated by secret police agents. In addition, the tribunal is so unpopular in Serbia that it is no wonder the ND wishes to deny any connection to the first Serb to testify against Milosevic.


Tanic appeared undisturbed by the ND's action. He said the party's archives contained documents contradicting its statement and that the lack of information about his engagement was a natural consequence of his police intelligence-related activities, which, he said, "were not announced in public".


Tanic's testimony has done him no favours in Serbia. The media there has rounded on him as not so much an insider but as an outsider who is a self-promoter, a charlatan and a police informer. He had no access to decision-making circles, they say, and could not have possessed first-hand information about the accused.


Such highly personal attacks cannot entirely explain away the real inside information Tanic clearly possesses about Milosevic's alleged private chain of command, illegal use of the army, plans for ethnic cleansing and cynical games with civilian casualties - none of which the defendant denied.


One possible explanation is that Tanic was close to a couple of major Milosevic insiders - almost certainly Stanisic, Perisic and Dusko Mihajlovic, the New Democracy chief. All three enjoyed the former Yugoslav leader's favour, but none wants to come to The Hague to testify against the defendant. Tanic can be seen in this light as their "authorised proxy", who has agreed to tell their story to the court, leaving them free to distance themselves from him, as Mihajlovic has done.


The question is how the judges will evaluate such "proxy" insider testimony. From the fact that they repeatedly warned Milosevic not to waste time on peripheral issues and concentrate on the "central issues" of Tanic's testimony, granting him at least another 90 minutes of cross-examination on Tuesday, it appears they consider his testimony very important.


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