Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Milosevic Wire Tap Revelations
To anyone unfamiliar with the Balkans, the following exchange would sound more like a Quentin Tarantino movie than a conversation between two presidents.
It’s a warm day in July 1991 and a boisterous and self-confident Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic is chatting on the phone with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic about a conversation he recently had with the German ambassador to Yugoslavia.
Preparations were under way by Croatian Serbs to create an autonomous Serb republic within Croatia and it was widely believed that the Yugoslav National Army, JNA, was aiding and abetting their efforts.
“So this ambassador, he, like, says he has some information that the [Croatian Serbs] have weapons,” Milosevic says. “So I tell him: Serbs always have weapons, we’re that kind of people, we always had weapons.”
Clearly pleased with himself, the Serbian president continues. “So he, like, fuck it, what can he say, right? So he says: but they also have mortars. So I say: well, mortars are weapons, too. Right?” Milosevic says, bursting out into laughter.
On the other end of the line, somewhere in Sarajevo, Karadzic lets out a raucous, rasping laugh and the two men share a moment of light relief from the tedious day-to-day business of preparing for war.
“What was he expecting?” Milosevic continues. “That I’d tell him I sent it all there myself?”
Neatly digitised, converted into an mp3 file and stored under the number B6588 - 080791A138-326!s, this conversation is just one of some 245 telephone intercepts tribunal prosecutors have submitted as evidence to show the extent of Milosevic’s involvement with Serb leaders in both Croatia and Bosnia.
They reveal conversations between Serbia’s former president and other members of the so-called joint criminal enterprise alleged to have orchestrated Yugoslavia’s break-up – including the likes of the Serbian secret service chief Jovica Stanisic, the head of federal customs Mihalj Kertes and leaders of various police and paramilitary units such as Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic and Milorad “Legija” Lukovic.
Through the crackling of outdated telephone lines, the intercepts give remarkable detail of how the wars were conducted. They portray the defendant playing Byzantine-style political games in which he and his associates are constantly setting traps for other Yugoslav political leaders who opposed their goals.
Peppered with strong language, muffled sounds of chewing and the clatter of plates, the conversations drift from politics to war to personal health and family relations.
Prosecutors introduced the wire taps into evidence in an effort to show the court that Milosevic was deeply involved in the planning and preparation of the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
The defendant does not dispute that terrible crimes were committed in both republics. However, he claims that as the Serbian president, he had nothing to do with what happened across his country’s borders.
If the court accepts the intercepts, they could help undermine the cornerstone of his defence, because they appear to reveal that the ex-Serbian president was intricately involved in the neighbouring conflicts.
The wire taps show that Milosevic spoke to Karadzic sometimes two to three times a day and that the latter traveled to Belgrade to consult with the former almost on a weekly basis.
“The intercepts show clearly that [the defendant] took an active part in planning, instigating and preparing the crimes described in [his] indictment,” said prosecution spokeswoman Florence Hartmann.
The prosecution recently made the intercepts available to the public. Although the tribunal would not comment on their origins, they seem to have been gathered by Bosnian intelligence services who wiretapped various telephone lines between early 1991 and May 1992.
The quality of the recordings suggest that the intelligence services bugged the phones of Karadzic and other Bosnian Serb political leaders because their voices come through louder and clearer than that of their interlocutors.
The intercepts show the evolution of the relationship between Karadzic and Milosevic, starting off as distant but amiable in early 1991, becoming friendlier as the year progresses.
Throughout, Karadzic addresses Milosevic formally, while the latter is more familiar with the former, apparently suggesting the unequal nature of the relationship.
Occasionally, Karadzic assumes the role of unofficial liaison between Milosevic and the military and political leadership of the Croatian Serbs - often carrying alarmist messages from the battlefields in Croatia, which the ex-Serbian president regularly checks out and dismisses as exaggerated.
In one of the intercepts, which was already accepted as evidence and used in the Croatia part of the Milosevic trial, the defendant is recorded arranging military actions in Croatia and asking Karadzic to make sure that a Serb military force in the Bosnian Serb town of Banja Luka is “able and mobile and has no problems”.
In these conversations, Milosevic comes across as the more level-headed of the two, calming down Karadzic’s consistently militant rhetoric. But by July 1991, the war in Croatia is already raging and it becomes increasingly clear that Bosnia would go the same way. This is the one time when the defendant describes the reality in clear terms, “Now it is, as they say, war, and we are one of the warring sides.”
In one conversation, Milosevic chats happily about an interview he has just given to Sky News, and informs Karadzic that it would be rebroadcast.
“They told me: Mr President you are now the most important media personality in the world,” Milosevic boasts.
On another occasion, Milosevic admonishes the chronically under-informed Karadzic for “never reading the papers”.
In the intercepts, Milosevic is most often heard expressing contempt not towards Croat or Muslim politicians, but towards his own associates.
In one conversation, he pokes fun of the head of the rump Yugoslav presidency Borisav Jovic, telling Karadzic that he doesn’t listen much to Jovic, “ I just say: fine, fine, Boro, fine, fine, fine and then I hang up the phone.”
The brunt of Milosevic’s contempt, however, is reserved for the political leader of Croatian Serbs, Milan Babic, who in late 1991 fell out with the then Serbian president. Milosevic refers to the him as a “fool”, “crazy mother-fucker”, “idiot”, “insolent,” “a dumb pig” and “schizophrenic”.
In early 1992, Milsoevic appears to become irritated with Karadzic as well - for becoming too dependent on him. At one point, the defendant sends a message through his chef of state security that the Bosnian Serb leadership “should do some things on their own, for a change”.
The court has indicated that it will likely accept the intercepts after their authenticity can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt.
Not surprisingly, Milosevic and his amici curiae have challenged their admissibility, alleging that unfriendly security services may have forged them to prove his complicity in the Bosnian and Croatian wars.
Legal experts say there are a number of ways to authenticate the wire taps. One is to have one of the parties to the conversations verify that he did have the conversation. Another is to have a third party, who is a native and knows the speakers well, do so. Babic, who pleaded guilty before the tribunal recently, did so for 52 of the 245 conversations. Yet another is to obtain voice prints from a public source such as a television address, then compare it to the voiceprints on the intercepts.
When prosecutors introduced the intercepts, they called upon an expert witness to verify their authenticity in closed session.
While none of these methods would prove that there had been no editing of different parts of the publicly available voice recordings to forge a conversation, a former US intelligence officer, who asked not to be named, told IWPR that this would be difficult to do.
“To falsify 245 intercepts of dozens of people in a period of a year, together with chewing sounds, plate clatter and voices of people such as secretaries, wives and daughters whose voice recordings are hard to obtain, would be an enormous undertaking. There are not many secret services in the world that would be able to do it. I’m doubtful whether even the US [intelligence] service could,” he said.
Apart from the fact that evidence suggests that the intercepts are authentic, legal experts say the tribunal has liberal rules regarding the admissibility of such material.
“In the pure common law system the question would be raised about the way in which the information was gathered, whether the wire taps were done on court orders or not. This is done in order to protect the human rights of the accused as well as the jury from possible manipulation of the prosecution,” said Marieke Wierda, a legal expert with the International Centre For Transitional Justice.
“But the [tribunal] has a civil-law panel of three professional judges who are assumed to be much more difficult to influence than a jury. And a civil law system has a much more liberal tradition of accepting this kind of evidence.”
Prosecutors have a lot riding on the court’s decision on the intercepts. Indeed, when the trial of Bosnian Serb political leader Momcilo Krajisnik commenced this week, prosecutor Mark Harmon indicated in his opening statements that he planned to introduce them into evidence in that case as well.
Whatever decision the judges take, tribunal officials say the value of the intercepts stretches beyond the legal realm.
"What is so special about them is that taken together they show the full banality of preparations for something very evil. The people recorded are preparing a war as if they were preparing a vacation. It's a chilling warning that any group of determined people with enough power in their hands can start a war anywhere in the world, anytime,” said one tribunal insider.
Ana Uzelac is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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