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

Milosevic Ally Takes the Stand

Former ally paints picture of sympathetic and daring leader who gave hope to oppressed Serbs in Kosovo.
By Ana Uzelac

Former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic returned to centre stage in his trial this week after regaining the right to conduct his own defence.


The first defence witness to testify after the appeals chamber’s November 1 reversal of an earlier decision to appoint lawyers to the ailing defendant on health grounds was Mihajlo Markovic - Milosevic’s former close ally and vice-president of his Serbian Socialist Party, SPS.


A sharply-dressed 82-year-old, Markovic helped to shape the ideology of the SPS in the early Nineties.


He is one of the main co-authors of the infamous Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences – a document published in 1986, which the prosecution alleges laid the ideological ground for Yugoslavia’s bloody break-up.


The two-day long examination was the first Milosevic has led – and the judges made a point of explaining the rules to him before he started.


“You are not allowed to ask leading questions,” presiding judge Patrick Robinson warned. “You are not to give evidence and you are not to make speeches.”


But in the course of the next two days Milosevic managed to break every single one of those rules – asking largely leading questions and veering off regularly into protracted speeches.


The main aim of Markovic’s testimony was to counter the prosecution’s picture of Milosevic’s role on the political scene in the former Yugoslavia.


The prosecution alleges that Milosevic was a skilful manipulator who rode on a rising tide of nationalism common among Serbs at the time, and had used their fears to gain and retain power. But the witness tried to portray him as a concerned and daring leader who offered Yugoslavia’s Serbs a sense of restored dignity and the hope of favourable political and economic reforms.


This is how Milosevic would like to be remembered in history, according to Heikelina Verrijn Stuart, a Dutch legal journalist and the long-term observer of the trial.


“What Milosevic seems to be doing is not defending himself in a criminal trial, but re-writing his political and historical profile,” she told IWPR.


Markovic’s testimony seemed to revolve around three main topics: the Serbian Academy’s 1986 Memorandum; a notorious speech Milosevic delivered in Kosovo in 1989 and the political programme of his party, which the witness drafted.


Markovic told the court that the political and economic crisis that gripped the former Yugoslavia in the Eighties had prompted Serbian academics to draft a unique document – the 1986 memorandum - in which they described the positions of Serbs as they saw it.


The document claimed that Serbia was rendered unequal in the Yugoslav federation by the country’s constitution, which gave the power of veto to Serbia’s two autonomous provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo – the latter the scene of rising tensions between the local Serbs and ethnic Albanians.


A draft of the memorandum leaked to the press in 1986 described the political crisis in Kosovo as a “physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide against the Serb population” and called for the changes to the country’s constitution in order to amend this. The changes, Markovic conceded, were supposed to centralise the Yugoslav federation at the very time when its western republics were calling for a loosening of political ties in the country.


The document, prosecution claims, became an unofficial platform for growing Serbian nationalism, fuelled by Milosevic, that later led the country into a series of ethnic wars.


Under cross examination, the witness remained adamant that while the memorandum’s use of the word “genocide” may have been “exaggerated”, the description of the situation Kosovar Serbs were in was otherwise accurate.


The Serbs in Kosovo suffered abuses at the hands of the Albanian majority - and Milosevic “was the only Serb politician who wanted to receive them and hear their complaints”, the witness said.


During cross-examination the witness agreed that, while never publicly supporting the controversial memorandum, Milosevic had stopped a “witch hunt” against it.


When asked by prosecutors whether Markovic “as an intellectual” was aware that such strong language may actually have had an “adverse effect on the relations with other Yugoslav republics”, Markovic flatly answered, “The truth had to be said.”


When the prosecution insisted that such language created a culture where “one segment [of population] is categorised as outsiders”, making it “easier to commit crimes” against such a group later on, Markovic became visibly irritated and asked the prosecutor “not to hold lectures”.


In his testimony, Markovic described a political climate among the Serbian political elite where it was deemed acceptable to divide Yugoslav nations into those who as “constitutive” nations had more rights and those - labelled “minority” – who had far fewer.


Kosovo Albanians, he explained, were categorised as “minority” in Serbia, and thus had no right to ask for independence, while the Serb leadership insisted that Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia must be treated as “constitutive”, and retain this right.


But Markovic denied there was ever a state policy of unifying the territories inhabited by ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia proper, to create a “Greater Serbia”.


On the other hand, the prosecution insists that such plans existed and that in March 1989 Milosevic made a first step towards achieving them by orchestrating amendments to the Serbian constitution that effectively abolished the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina.


But the witness insisted that only “the elements of sovereignty” were revoked, while the “autonomy” remained. Revoking them gave Serbia equal status among other Yugoslav republics, he said, suggesting also that the Kosovo assembly passed these amendments of its own free will.


When prosecutor Geoffrey Nice asked Markovic whether he remembered seeing the tanks surrounding the Kosovo assembly on the day the amendments were passed, the witness replied that he could not.


The other focal point of the testimony was the speech Milosevic gave in Kosovo three month after these events, on the 600th anniversary of a historical battle which is still revered by many Serbs as a focus of national pride.


In this speech, Milosevic warned a crowd of more than a million Serbs, who had been brought to the former battlefield of Gazimestan from all over the republic, of “many battles to come”, some of which may be “armed”.


In their opening statement in February 2002, the prosecutors claimed that this speech was a turning point in Milosevic’s career, where he “used the developing sentiments of anti-communism and turned them, by reliance on nationalism, to his own advantage”.


But the accused and his witness tried to dispel this claim, portraying the Gazimestan speech as “peaceful and reconciliatory”. Markovic insisted that the accused spoke of the “need for unity, national equality and tolerance”.


Throughout the testimony both Milosevic and Markovic read extensively from the speech and the memorandum to illustrate their thesis.


The defendant and his witness also tried to prove that the party headed by Milosevic was actually keen on building a multi-ethnic Serbia. For this purpose, Markovic quoted from the minutes of a party meeting held in summer 1998. The final outbreak of violence in Kosovo – which would lead to the NATO bombardment of Serbia less than a year later – had just begun at this stage.


“There was already fighting going on in Kosovo, but [Milosevic] said ‘No matter how it may look like, we need to show exactly this approach - non-violent and with the affirmation of principles of equality of national rights’,” Markovic said, adding that the essence of SPS policy on Kosovo was one of “full civil and national quality”.


Among other things, Milosevic is accused of orchestrating a campaign of massive and systematic expulsions of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo in the spring of 1999. He is facing charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide on three separate indictments concerning wars in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.


The long and elaborate witness testimony often resembled a platform for Milosevic’s trademark demagogic skills. On one occasion he said, “Professor Markovic. Principled and concrete approach to the question of national equality - do you know that this was my position all along, incessantly, throughout the Yugoslav crisis, and all the way to the very end?”


The witness would inevitably agree to such questions, often failing to offer any concrete corroboration of the argument presented. The judges remained mostly silent, interrupting Milosevic only when prompted by the prosecutor.


After a particularly obvious series of leading questions, Nice interrupted Milosevic’s questioning to ask the judges to prevent him from “leading the witness” – a legal term describing questions which already contain the answer and are thus of no value to the court.


Offended, Markovic said that Milosevic “could not lead him anywhere”.


“I am completely independent from him. We parted ways in 1995,” he said, prompting a somewhat exasperated Judge Robinson to stop him and explain what the term actually meant.


Trial observers agree that, on this showing, Milosevic did not come across as a good lawyer and was missing “critical criminal law issues”.


“But he [has the] right to choose such a defence,” warned Verrijn Stuart. “And if this is what he wants, he should be allowed to do it, even if it is to his detriment.


“I would, however, never choose him as my defence lawyer.”


Ana Uzelac is IWPR project manager in The Hague.