ANALYSIS: Rugova Recounts 'Cordial' Milosevic Meeting

Ibrahim Rugova reveals background to his infamous meeting with Milosevic at the height of the Kosovo war.

ANALYSIS: Rugova Recounts 'Cordial' Milosevic Meeting

Ibrahim Rugova reveals background to his infamous meeting with Milosevic at the height of the Kosovo war.

The Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova last week confronted Slobodan Milosevic in a head-to-head that could not have contrasted more starkly with their three previous meetings in the late Nineties.

On those occasions, members of the Serbian state security service escorted Rugova - then the most moderate of ethnic Albanian leaders - to meetings with Milosevic, who was then the president of Yugoslavia.

Since then, Rugova has been elected and internationally recognised as the president of Kosovo, while Milosevic lost the elections in Serbia, his presidency and then his freedom, before finally ending up at The Hague in June last year. In February this year, he began his trial, charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia.

The fourth meeting between the two men took place on Friday, May 3, 2002 at The Hague courtroom, where Rugova appeared as a prosecution witness in the Milosevic trial.

If Milosevic entered his fourth duel with Rugova as if nothing had changed since their last meeting, he soon discovered his powers of intimidation in The Hague courtroom were not even close to the powers he enjoyed in his presidential palace. Though seen as a "soft" politician and called the "Gandhi of Kosovo", Rugova would not be browbeaten.

Instead of the shy smile known from the photograph of their meeting of April 1, 1999, which astonished many people on account of the crimes taking place at that time and for which Milosevic is now on trial - Rugova last Friday laughed openly from the witness bench at Milosevic's aggressive questions and claims made during cross-examination.

Giving testimony at Milosevic's trial gave Rugova the chance to shed light on the mystery of that smile and of the circumstances in which, in the middle of NATO air strikes and alleged Serbian violence against Albanians, he found himself in Belgrade having a "cordial" conversation with the head of state. For three years, Rugova declined to publicly explain the matter. Perhaps he was waiting for the chance to do it in The Hague in front of Milosevic.

Rugova testified that on March 31, 1999, seven days after NATO air strikes began, a group of soldiers broke into his house in Pristina and put him and his family under virtual "house arrest". That evening the local state security services chief visited him and said he would be traveling the next day to Belgrade to meet president Milosevic. He said he opposed this but that the policeman insisted and he was afraid of the consequences. As a result, Rugova went on, the army and police escorted him to the presidential palace in Belgrade on April 1, 1999.

His meeting with Milosevic lasted for less than an hour, he said. Rugova added that when he expressed concern over the mass expulsions, killings and other crimes, the defendant had replied that the "international community was to blame". The defendant had then insisted on a joint signed press release, stating their "full agreement on mutual dedication to political process and peaceful resolution to the Kosovo crisis".

Rugova alleged he was against signing such a statement, but consented "against his will". After a television crew filmed the event, the photograph of a smiling Rugova and Milosevic appeared on front pages of the Serbian newspapers the next day, with a facsimile of their signatures on the joint declaration.

Rugova said the secret police arranged several similar meetings in April and early May, at which he met the Serbian president, Milan Milutinovic, also accused of responsibility for crimes in Kosovo, and even the Russian Orthodox Patriarch, Alexei.

He also received visits in Pristina from the former deputy Yugoslav prime minister, Nikola Sainovic, another Kosovo indictee, who surrendered last week. In his testimony, Rugova described Sainovic as a "person with the highest level authorisation in Kosovo".

By the end of April, Rugova said, he had been forced to sign another document expressing "political agreement" for a resolution of the Kosovo crisis, which Milutinovic brought to him. On May 4, 1999 he was taken to Belgrade for another meeting with the defendant. The main subject was his wish to go abroad, which Rugova had demanded in previous talks with Belgrade officials without success. Milosevic said he could leave but his family would have to remain in Kosovo. When Rugova rejected this, the accused finally agreed he and his family could leave for Italy.

As well as showing how Milosevic, his associates and the secret police manipulated him for propaganda purposes, Rugova's testimony confirmed that the former Belgrade leader was well aware of what was going on in Kosovo.

The defendant, however, whilst agreeing that Rugova had been "manipulated", insisted that other parties had done it. At the start of his cross-examination, he asked if Rugova agreed that he himself and the Kosovo Albanians were "used as instruments to realise the interests of great powers?"

A fierce debate between the witness and the accused ensued over the causes and objectives of NATO intervention, and on developments in Kosovo after KFOR entered and the province came under UN administration.

As both men drifted away from the subject, the judges, amici curiae (friends of the court) and the prosecutor had to re-examine the scope of cross-examination and the relevance of questions pertaining to post-indictment period, which lasts until June 20, 1999. Admitting that "this courtroom is not a political arena", Michail Wladimiroff, one of the three amici, argued that the importance of the witness gave the accused the right to ask questions on political activities which "might have caused the events in the indictment".

Attempting to prove such questions were relevant, Milosevic again reached for his favorite conspiracy theory. This holds that crimes that have been committed against Serbs in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska are "a direct consequence of the anti-Serbian policy which was promoted throughout the last decade, intended to annul and change the outcome of the First and Second World Wars".

Unidentified German politicians were behind this, says Milosevic. At the beginning of the last decade they "revived the idea and plan to break [up] Yugoslavia", a state created after the First World War by the Versailles peace treaty. German support for Rugova and the Kosovo Albanians, Milosevic said, was a payback for the "massive participation of Albanian formations on the side of Hitler and Mussolini during the Second World War".

Rugova disputed all this. He denied that 360,000 Serbs had been driven out of Kosovo "and thousands killed and kidnapped", though he gave no alternative figure. And he laughed outright at Milosevic's paranoid description of the world "conspiring against Serbia and Serbs".

The second round of the duel between Milosevic and Rugova took place on Monday. Although the defendant requested "at least one more day" to examine the witness, the judges allowed him only 90 minutes (until the first morning break), stressing he "would have had more time...had it not been for his long discussion of peripheral issues with the witness".

Even so, Milosevic's cross-examination of Rugova still lasted almost two hours longer than the prosecution's questioning of the defendant.

Since the judges have set an April 10 deadline next year for the prosecution to complete its presentation of the evidence on all three indictments, it is in Milosevic's interest to prolong cross-examination of the witnesses for as long as possible, even about "peripheral issues". The longer this lasts, the less time the prosecution has to present its evidence.

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

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