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


By Ana Uzelac in The Hague (TU No 394, 18-Feb-05)

The testimony of the smartly dressed and soft-spoken former Serbian foreign minister Vladislav Jovanovic aimed to disprove prosecution claims that Milosevic was in control of the events in Croatia and Bosnia.

Jovanovic depicted his former boss as a man with good intentions and limited powers, who wanted to help Serbs in Croatia and later in Bosnia, but could not influence their political and military leadership as much as the prosecutors claim he could.

But during the cross-examination, prosecutors managed to produce evidence showing that Belgrade was well-informed about the events in Bosnia and had openly debated issues such as changing the ethnic structure of that country with Bosnian Serb leaders.

Milosevic is facing more than 60 charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide on three separate indictments pertaining to wars fought in the Nineties in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo respectively.

Large part of Jovanovic’s testimony focused on the early years of the wars, and the actual break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The witness tried to prove that the break-up was the result of a plan that Croatia and Slovenia had developed years before, and that the wars were a result of the “unilateral secessionist policy” of those republics.

The two had “great help from other countries - Germany, Austria and the Vatican”, the diplomat said, echoing the main thesis of Milosevic’s defence that Yugoslavia fell victim to an international conspiracy to destroy it.

Jovanovic also testified about the various international negotiations and peace talks that he participated in as a foreign minister for Serbia and later rump Yugoslavia, claiming that Serb delegations were regularly victimised at such events by diplomats from the West and from other former Yugoslav republics alike.

A similar thesis has already been put forward by many other witnesses in the court – including former Serbian deputy prime minister Ratko Markovic and one other Milosevic associate, retired Belgrade law professor Smilja Avramov.

Obviously exasperated about having to sit through yet another hearing about the same issues, presiding Judge Patrick Robinson warned the accused that he was “beating the point to death”. Milosevic seemed unmoved, and continued much in the same vein for the greater part of the testimony.

But the former president did manage to introduce some potentially important pieces of evidence relating to the extent of his influence on the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia through Jovanovic’s testimony.

The witness claimed that Milosevic was only moderately well informed about what was happening in Bosnia, and was dependant on news from the Bosnian Serb leaders, with whom he had a deteriorating relationship. During cross-examination, Jovanovic insisted that Milosevic had learned of the July 1995 fall of Srebrenica, and the murders of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys that followed it, from “the news”.

Jovanovic insisted that the wars in Croatia and Bosnia were both “internal conflicts” and that the Belgrade government and Milosevic personally had little influence on the military and political leaders of both nations.

To prove this, Milosevic and his witness used a United Nations Secretary General report from the summer of 1992, which stated that the Bosnian Serb troops were “not subject to orders from Belgrade”. The report also spoke of “the emergence of General [Ratko] Mladic and the forces under his command as an independent actor”.

The exact nature of the relation between Mladic and Milosevic could prove to be crucial for establishing the latter’s responsibility for crimes listed in the Bosnian indictment - especially for genocide.

This document prompted the presiding judge to stress that the passage was “very strong and very important” for Milosevic’s defence case.

Judge Robinson advised the defendant to try to find the people who wrote the report for the UN Secretary General and bring them to court to testify.

“It would be immensely strengthening for your case if you could secure [their] testimony,” the presiding judge said, advising Milosevic to “utilise the services of his defence counsel” for this.

But Milosevic – who does not recognise Steven Kay, the defence counsel assigned to him by the court last year – let this remark pass without comment.

Jovanovic went on to testify about the deterioration of relations between Milosevic and the Bosnian Serb leaders, who had refused a number of peace plan options put to them.

By 1993, the witness told the court, these relations “became strained [and] sometimes they would totally break down”.

“Our meetings became mostly disputes,” he said.

During the course of the cross examination, however, prosecutor Geoffrey Nice managed to punch a few holes in the theory of Milosevic’s supposed ignorance of the real situation in Bosnia.

Nice quoted numerous diplomatic dispatches that the Belgrade government received during the war warning it of the ongoing crisis in Bosnia, as well as a number of public UN documents, including a resolution from spring of 1993 in which the Security Council calls upon Belgrade to “prevent the genocide” in Bosnia.

He also read from a transcript of a session of a body set up to “coordinate” Bosnian Serb politics with those of Belgrade, where Jovanovic is quoted advocating “ethnic homogenisation” of territories under Serb control by encouraging a voluntary exchange of populations.

Although scheduled to last only a week, Jovanovic’s testimony has not yet been completed and the judges - increasingly critical of the way Milosevic is using the time allocated to his defence case - have announced they will be issuing their opinion on this matter soon.

Ana Uzelac IWPR’s programme manager in The Hague.