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

Comment: Milosevic Sinks to New Depths

Milosevic's insulting behaviour towards prosecution witness may discourage others from testifying.
By Mirko Klarin

One week after Croatian president Stjepan Mesic described him as "a man with no emotions, but only objectives", Slobodan Milosevic showed he had no scruples about people who fail to share those goals, or try to oppose them.

At the end of his cross-examination of prosecution witness Nikola Samardzic, Milosevic asked him if he was familiar with the Serbian proverb, "People who lie have short legs".

The problem was not the suggestion that the prosecution witness was lying and, as the proverb says, the truth would catch up with him sooner or later. The accused has the right to make such allusions - a right that Milosevic has used and abused extensively during the trial to undermine those he sees as "false witnesses" giving evidence on a "false indictment" before a "false tribunal".

The problem is that this witness really does have short legs; both were amputated some years ago owing to diabetes-related complications. Milosevic knew that, just as everybody else did in the court and public gallery.

For three days, he had watched the witness enter and leave the courtroom with the aid of a stick, but he still couldn't restrain himself from aiming - quite literally - below the belt. It was the kind of act for which any boxer would be thrown out of the ring.

Reporters and observers in the public gallery familiar with Milosevic's antics were nonetheless astonished and appalled. So was the prosecution, with its leading counsel Geoffrey Nice describing the remark as "absolutely inexcusable", adding that the defendant "descended to the depths of poor taste and maybe worse".

In spite of their tendency to go easy on the accused because he is defending himself, the judges also condemned Milosevic's "vulgar abuse", with Judge Richard May instructing the witness that he "need not answer that question".

Courtroom reactions aside, this episode is extremely significant for two reasons.

Firstly, it's likely to intimidate future prosecution witnesses and may even discourage them from coming to The Hague. And secondly, it betrays a marked lack of emotions or scruples, which some argue inured the defendant to war crimes.

Nikola Samardzic was Montenegro's foreign minister from early 1991 until mid-1992. In this capacity, he took part in the 1991 Hague peace conference for the old Yugoslav federation. He also participated in Montenegrin government sessions in which he alleged decisions were passed to mobilise the republic's army reservists and police and deploy them in the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, siege of Dubrovnik.

His testimony described two key events. The first on October 1, 1991 when the witness alleged a special Montenegrin government session - attended by President Momir Bulatovic and several JNA generals and admirals, including Pavle Strugar and Miodrag Jokic - took place. Both the latter have been indicted by The Hague for the shelling of Dubrovnik between October and December 1991 and other crimes committed in the siege.

Samardzic claimed Bulatovic said Croatia had launched an attack on Montenegro and that 30,000 "Ustashas" (Croatian Second World War Fascists) were ready to occupy the Bay of Kotor. In response, a decision was passed to mobilise Montenegro's reserve and special police forces and send them to the Dubrovnik front. The evidence presented included a mobilisation order signed by Bulatovic.

During the campaign, the JNA and Montenegro's territorial defense forces occupied a broad swathe around Dubrovnik and shelled it from land and sea for several months.

"Dubrovnik was only defending itself... It was a war of conquest," said Samardzic. "It was an unjust war against Croatia, a war in which Montenegro disgraced itself by putting itself in the service of the Yugoslav army and Slobodan Milosevic and this shame will remain with us for perhaps another 100 years. Nothing more shameful has been done in Montenegro in its history for many hundreds of years."

Among the crimes for which he is charged in the Croatian indictment, Milosevic is held responsible for the shelling of Dubrovnik, the killing of more than 40 civilians, the destruction of historic monuments in the old city and the looting of private property in the area.

Milosevic denied this part of Samardzic's testimony. He said Serbia, of which he was then president, had nothing to do with the Dubrovnik campaign and was not responsible for what others did there.

He added that at The Hague peace conference, in the presence of its chairman British diplomat Lord Carrington and the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, he had condemned the shelling of Dubrovnik when news of it first broke because "it was insane to bomb or attack a town which is a jewel not only for the region but for the whole of Yugoslavia".

After thus confirming he had been aware of the shelling of Dubrovnik, Judge May asked him who he held responsible for the attacks. Milosevic refused to answer this and it was only after the judge repeated the question for the third time that he gave this answer:

"The explanation I got was that the army was being attacked," he said. "It was absolutely not true that the army was attacking Dubrovnik because if it had wanted to take it, it would have taken it. The army wanted only to limit the actions of the National Guard (the Croatian forces). That's the information I got."

Another event Samardzic related was not linked so directly to the indictment. But it is important for an understanding of the events that took place during the period covered by the indictment as well as of the manner in which the accused operated.

In October 1991, Lord Carrington presented the participants at The Hague peace conference - the representatives of the six Yugoslav republics - with a peace plan based on transforming the federation into "a loose association of sovereign states" with special status for ethnic minorities.

Croatia did not like this plan as it wanted full independence, and was unwilling to grant special status to its Serb population. But Croat representatives were reluctant to dismiss it out of hand, fearing international criticism. They counted on Milosevic rejecting the plan and thus taking the responsibility for its failure. He did, along with Montenegro.

Some European countries, especially Italy, had been trying to win Montenegro over from the start of the peace conference, with a view to isolating Milosevic and depriving him of the argument that he was fighting to "protect Yugoslavia". This initiative had some positive results. On October 18, 1991 Bulatovic accepted the Carrington plan, in spite of the fact that Milosevic had already disowned it.

All the Yugoslav republics except Serbia backed the plan. However, Milosevic's isolation did not last long. Two days after returning from The Hague, his envoys, Borisav Jovic and Branko Kostic, members of the truncated Yugoslav state presidency, arrived in Podgorica to intimidate Bulatovic into changing his mind about the Carrington plan, which he eventually did.

Samardzic said this is what Bulatovic had told him. But in a statement read out by Milosevic, the latter claimed that the former had lied and had come under no such pressure.

There is a problem for Bulatov and Milosevic in this case. Namely, Bulatovic spoke very differently in an interview he made for the British television serial, Death of Yugoslavia. In the insert presented by the prosecution as part of its questioning of Samardzic, Bulatovic is shown smiling and saying that in the night he returned from The Hague "the telephones kept ringing".

He said that "certain high officials and politicians" had accused him of "betraying Serbia" and that "there were some threats". The clip also showed Jovic saying "the only solution" for Belgrade was a change of heart in Montenegro and the rejection of the Carrington plan.

Bulatovic should be able to tell the world which version is right when he turns up at The Hague. He has offered to come and testify in Milosevic's defense. But it is equally possible that he will arrive as a defendant: the indictment against Milosevic lists Bulatovic among 15 participants in "the joint criminal enterprise" - the list includes Jovic and Kostic - in Croatia.

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