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

Milosevic Trial: Raking Over Serbia's Past

Defendant brings in a succession of academics in a bid to prove Serbia did not harbour expansionist plans in the Eighties.
By Alison Freebairn

An infamous 1986 memorandum widely viewed as a blueprint for the break-up of the former Yugoslavia was merely “a document of warning” that has since been misused by western powers for propaganda purposes, one of its authors claimed this week.


Retired professor Kosta Milhajlovic, formerly of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, SANU, was one of two defence witnesses to testify at the long-running trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague.


The former Yugoslav president is facing more than 60 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in three indictments relating to the wars in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.


Mihajlovic was one of the authors of a memorandum which the prosecution claims laid the foundations for a new wave of Serbian nationalism, which was then exploited by Milosevic in his rise to power.


The document, which was leaked to the press in 1986, called for constitutional change in order to rectify an “imbalance of power” in Yugoslavia, caused by ethnic tensions in the Serbian autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, which held the power of veto over Belgrade.


The actions of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo at the time amounted to “physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide against the Serb population” – a situation which had to be rectified, the leaked memorandum said.


When asked what SANU’s motive for writing the memorandum had been, the witness replied, “The motive was a feeling that persisted that the country was in a serious situation with no way out of it. The academy was deeply concerned by this.”


At first the memorandum was viewed as “an act of civic courage” by SANU, the witness said, but this opinion changed for the worse following the disintegration of Yugoslavia.


Milosevic then asked Mihajlovic why he thought that “in western propaganda it is said that the memorandum stoked ethnic conflict and contributed to the break-up of Yugoslavia”.


“People keep forgetting that the memorandum was not addressed to the public at all,” Mihajlovic said. “It was leaked and misused to attack the academy.”


However, during his cross-examination, prosecutor Geoffrey Nice pointed out that the differences between the version of the memorandum leaked in 1986 and the version that was published by SANU in 1995 were “negligible”.


A tight schedule in the days leading up to the tribunal’s winter break led to the trial chamber warning both prosecution and defence that questioning had to be relevant and to the point.


Nice was later chided by Judge Bonomy for asking “some pretty pointless questions” during his cross-examination of Mihajlovic, an opinion the prosecutor respectfully disagreed with.


On December 15 and 16, another SANU historian, retired professor Cedomir Popov, completed his testimony in The Hague.


Under questioning from Milosevic, the witness spoke of abuses suffered by the Serb people because of territorial aggression by other European nations, and denied that Belgrade was working toward the establishment of a Greater Serbia to dominate the Balkans.


When asked by presiding judge Patrick Robinson of Jamaica whether he was claiming that there had never been a Greater Serbia policy, Popov replied, “I said there had been such ideas but that they always belonged to peripheral and marginal forces, with one exception.”


The witness explained that Serbia had waged the first Balkan war in 1912 in order to expel Turkish troops and take control of a liberated Kosovo and a port on the Adriatic coast. It had also taken part of the area that is now Macedonia, as had Bulgaria and Greece.


“This was the only expansionist move by Serbia as far as I know,” said Popov.


The trial chamber warned Milosevic against getting bogged down in academic detail, but the defendant argued that the creation of a Greater Serbia was “one of the main arguments” in the indictments against him and that “this absurdity has to be clarified and debunked”.


However, Nice took this opportunity to remind that court that the prosecution is not basing its case on the Greater Serbia issue, and had “never put [the term] in the mouth of the accused”.


The judges also warned the defendant against going over old ground in his examination, noting that as several previous witnesses had been historians, the trial chamber was in danger of drowning in history.


Earlier this week, Milosevic took advantage of the break between witnesses to repeat his call for a series of very high-profile politicians to be forced to testify before the tribunal.


The former Yugoslav president is seeking to prove that Serbia was the victim of international aggression in the Nineties, and wants to call former United States president Bill Clinton, his former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, British prime minister Tony Blair and former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, among others, to The Hague.


However, he has not followed Judge Robinson’s previous direction that any such request must be put in writing. Milosevic has always refused to enter into written correspondence with the tribunal, which he does not recognise as legitimate, and will not speak to the court-assigned counsel who could conceivably make such a request for him.


Instead, the former Yugoslav president tried to convince the trial chamber that as his previous oral request had been printed in the case transcript, this constituted a “written” request.


However, this failed to impress Judge Robinson.


“Haven’t we been through this two or three times before?” the presiding judge asked patiently. “Have you issued a written motion asking for subpoenas?”


“I have given everything to the liaison officer and put it forward orally, which has the same weight as a written submission. It’s in the transcript, so now you have it in writing,” replied the defendant.


“Not at all,” said Judge Robinson. “You must put it in writing. If you insist that this is an [oral] application, this chamber will refuse it without prejudice to your right to make a written submission at a later date.


“What I want to see from you is the same kind of documentation that the prosecution tendered on several occasions when they made their request for subpoenas. You can learn from them. Let Mr Nice make these documents available to you.”


In order for a subpoena to be issued, the trial chamber must be satisfied that all efforts to secure the appearance of a witness have been exhausted. Judge Robinson has warned the defendant more than once that such a step “is not taken lightly”, and that proper procedures must be followed at all times.


Judge Robinson warned Milosevic that if he tried to raise the matter of subpoenas again without following instructions from the bench, the trial chamber “will be forced to conclude that you are making mischief”.


The trial has now adjourned for the tribunal’s winter break and is expected to reconvene on January 11.


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London. Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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