Milosevic Rages Against the West

Former Yugoslav president takes centre stage at the tribunal with a blistering attack on the international community.

Milosevic Rages Against the West

Former Yugoslav president takes centre stage at the tribunal with a blistering attack on the international community.

Friday, 15 February, 2002

Slobodan Milosevic dismissed the prosecution's charges as "oceans of lies" against not only him but also the Serbian people, in an energetic and wide-ranging opening address on the third day of his trial.


Significantly, Milosevic's speech, in dealing with broad political issues as well as aspects of the prosecution case, served to validate the court and its procedures. And his denunciation of the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo is likely to rally fresh support for the tribunal among alliance states whom he accused of numerous atrocities and a "neo-Nazi plan" to destroy Yugoslavia.


Challenging the prosecution's contention that he was the primary force behind the Balkan wars, Milosevic argued that the conflicts were driven by the West's "neo-colonial" designs, in alliance with fundamentalists in Bosnia and Albanian "terrorists". Behind it all, he said, was the goal of a "Greater Albania".


"The prosecution," he insisted, halfway through his four-hour address, "wants to proclaim us the culprits" when we "were the victims". For " the killing of Yugoslavia, they are crucifying me here. . . . But world opinion will not be able to turn a blind eye".


As he began his address, he stressed that he would not be speaking to the ("false") court or the ("malicious") prosecution but, ever the politician, a broader audience.


"This," he said, "is the first opportunity I have been given after seven months to address the public." Illustrated his opening remarks with extensive clips from Serbian and German TV documentaries disputing claims of Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, Milosevic sought to counter "the propaganda and abuse of the global media.. against my country".


Declaring his intention to cross-examine French president Jacques Chirac, among other Western leaders, he presented a nearly two-hour long slide show of atrocities allegedly the result of NATO bombing. The performance looked like the State Department's worst nightmare.


In reality, it was nothing new. While some Serbian journalists at the court appeared decidedly perky as the morning wore on - "He's indicted NATO!", one chirped - a member of the Kosovo Albanian hack pack was unimpressed, "Same old rubbish".


True, for once the inveterate speech-maker, who even the prosecution acknowledged has "considerable powers of persuasion", was able to present on a world stage - with simultaneous output in four languages - exactly the combination of bluster and modesty, pseudo-fact and obfuscation, emotion and calm reason, that has been his hallmark.


The real breakthrough, then, was that for the first time, the rest of the world experienced at full blast the chaotic discourse endured by Serbia for more than a decade. Judging by the quizzical expressions of a handful of Western journalists seeking to pound every last word into their laptops, the main concern was, "Is this serious?"


The basis of Milosevic's argument was the honourable and defensive nature of Serbia's historic struggles. His country, his people, his party and of course he himself supported peace and multi-ethnicity, democracy and the rule of law. Scolding the prosecution for its outrageous indictment - "that regrettable opus of yours" - he contested, after a fashion, many of the issues raised in the prosecution's own opening.


"What are you trying to prove?" he asked repeatedly, referring to prosecution examples of his supposedly iron control. But his relations with Serbs outside of Serbia, party political influence and military command responsibility were all explained as unexceptional features of any political system.


Far from endemic corruption and patronage, for example, "We are the only country in the world that arrested two of its ministers because of embezzlement of 700,000 German marks. Not only were they replaced but they were charged".


Crucially, he insisted, "In the Serbian tradition and the Serbian military, a prisoner of war and an unarmed person is held sacred. Whoever violates this scared principle is punished." In a phrase he could come to regret, the experienced commander-in-chief informed the court that "in any army there is the principle of a single command and not a single link is missed in the chain of command when decisions are carried through".


The defendant took particular pleasure early on to quote extensively from his famous speech at Kosovo Polje in 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the Serbian defeat - described by the prosecution as a nationalist rallying cry. Then, as now, he said, Serbia was merely defending progress and European values - including multi-culturalism.


"Citizens of different nationalities, religions, and races have been living together... more and more successfully," he read, donning glasses in a professorial mode. "A very good speech," he said with wounded pride. "See how they abused it."


Remaining seated behind his defendant's desk, and dressed in his signature blue banker's suit and striped tie, he nevertheless mimicked many of the mannerisms of the rows of robed counsel, watching on in amazement, as he shuffled papers, modulated his tone, checked his timing.


At one point, he accosted his sparring partner, presiding Judge Richard May, with a verbal barrage of international treaties and human rights documents which he (again) said confirm the illegality of his detention. Yet he provided few detailed refutations of specific allegations, only insisting generally that Serbs and he personally had no official knowledge of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.


On Kosovo, however, he firmly rejected the allegation of an organised Serbian effort to expel Kosovo Albanians. "Under this false indictment, they have gone even further than anyone could imagine," he sneered. "They have even claimed that I intentionally caused the war against Yugoslavia and the suffering of its citizens for the sole purpose of using this occasion to expel the Albanians. I ask myself, 'Couldn't they have thought up something more intelligent?'"


Using graphic photographs of the carnage, he alleged that the NATO bombing of a column of Albanians on the Djakovica road was anything but a mistake.


"Undoubtedly, as we are talking in broad daylight, they were intentionally targeted," he said. "Because - contrary to the lies that the Albanians were fleeing the Serbian army and police - they were going back to their village. In addition to the bombs, during the aggression there were pamphlets appealing to the citizens to flee and the terrorists (referring to the Kosovo Liberation Army rebels)even killed heads of families who did not go along."


As the photographic display became increasingly grisly - carbonised corpses, body parts, a severed head - his tone become more and more maudlin.


And from there he warmed to his real theme, the NATO bombing of Serbia itself, "merciless" attacks against civilians targets, in which the explicit aim was "as much destruction, as many lives imperilled, as possible".


Repeatedly mocking the great powers, he explained that "in Kosovo in all the bombing, they only succeeded to destroy seven tanks. They hit many more hospitals . . . many more schools and health centers than they did tanks".


He read from a prepared document listing hundreds of civilian installations allegedly targeted, from schools and hospitals, to homes and villages, his daughter's own entertainment TV and radio station, and of course the infamous attack on Radio Television Serbia.


Speeding through his extended presentation, image after image showed destroyed bridges, burned bodies, ruined buildings. "Each of these individual crimes represents an enormous tragedy," he said. "It was obviously the goal and objective to terrorise and break down the whole Yugoslav nation."


As the list wore on - at one point he said he would submit 34 pages of a certain category of targets, in order to save time - Milosevic clearly felt that he was scoring a major success.


This was Milosevic's moment in the sun. In fact, regular tribunal reporters say it is always bright in The Hague when Slobo makes an appearance, and as the session closed, the clearest and most pleasant afternoon for many days broke. Indeed, because for the first time the accused - for better or for worse - had had his say, many of those observing the proceedings felt good.


But the lightness will not endure. Nineteen NATO governments have been accused of war crimes, and it would hardly be surprising if they spend this weekend scouring their files for any last evidentiary documents they may, by design or default, have neglected to hand over to Madame the Prosecutor. Once Milosevic's opening is completed, the squabbling with the presiding judge will return, and May will be compelled to instruct the accused to address the charges directly - or shut up.


Objections will be overruled, and the amicus curiae (friends of the court) - lawyers appointed by the tribunal to represent the interests of the defendant because of his refusal to appoint counsel - will make little impact. Tensions will flare. The generalisations and political pronouncements of the accused will be no match for the mountain of compelling evidence, including harrowing victim statements. For all the bluster and the controversy, a locked cell beckons.


But for one day, quite unwittingly, Milosevic's speech vindicated the tribunal more than any other single intervention it has seen. Everyone - even he - could go home satisfied, and for all the circus, there was, for one shining afternoon, a real sense of justice in action.


Anthony Borden is the executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.


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