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

Milosevic's Hotline

The discovery of a Zagreb-Belgrade hotline raises disturbing questions over the relationship between two warring Balkan leaders.
By Drago Hedl

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his Croatian counterpart, Franjo Tudjman, held secret talks on a special telephone hotline - even when the two countries were at war, it has been claimed.


Croatia's newly elected president, Stipe Mesic, invited journalists to his offices last week to show them the "black telephone" which allegedly allowed his predecessor to bargain with Milosevic for control of former Yugoslav territory.


Mesic explained that, after moving into the presidential suite, he noticed several of the telephones on his desk never rang. A subsequent investigation by the Croatian secret service revealed that one line was directly linked to Milosevic's Dedinje office, in Belgrade.


However, added Mesic, the telephone had been out of order since Tudjman's death in December last year, when the operating card had mysteriously gone missing.


The president also showed journalists a number of microphones concealed around the office, which he claims were used to record conversations between Tudjman, his associates and visiting guests. A search has been launched of the secret service archives in a bid to unearth transcripts of any recorded interchanges between Tudjman and Milosevic.


These transcripts could confirm commonly held suspicions that the two presidents were in constant contact during the war years and even agreed on several key issues.


Both the media and opposition politicians in Croatia have speculated that two military campaigns codenamed Flash and Storm -- which saw Croatia reclaim a large part of its occupied territories from the Serbs -- were, in fact, sanctioned by Milosevic.


Supporters of the theory claim that Milosevic agreed to sacrifice the Serb-controlled enclaves in order to unleash a fresh wave of Serbian refugees. He then planned to settle the refugees in Kosovo and thereby increase the proportion of non-Albanians in a province he was finding increasingly difficult to rule.


Following his election victory in 1990, Tudjman met Milosevic a total of 47 times and it is thought the two presidents shared an enduring respect for one another, even during the darkest days of the Balkans conflict.


They communicated regularly, especially over the division of Bosnia, which the two leaders believed should be carved up between them.


In 1995, during a notorious meeting with British Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown for the 50th anniversary of Allied victory in World War Two, Tudjman sketched his plans for the proposed partition on a restaurant napkin. Ashdown later described the incident to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.


During Mesic's inauguration in February this year, Nenad Canak, leader of the Vojvodina League of Social Democrats, said the new president had promised to publish the dossier containing secret talks between Tudjman and Milosevic over the division of Bosnia.


At the time, Canak claimed Mesic had mentioned secret negotiations between Serbs and Croats back in 1991, when Milosevic's army was launching its fiercest attacks on the Croatian town of Vukovar. Mesic had pledged then to reveal the exact geographical breakdown of the proposed partition.


Meanwhile, close associates of Tudjman, office chief Hrvoje Sarinic and his deputy Vesna Skare Ozbolt, denied the telephone hotline had existed. They explained that it was a secure line, which Tudjman used to communicate with his inner circle without fear of being bugged.


Serbian information minister, Aleksandar Vucic, also dismissed the Zagreb revelations. He commented that the Croatian media was pro-American and it was hardly surprising they had run the story.


The committee for national security in the Croatian Parliament will meet to discuss the Zagreb-Belgrade hotline on March 20 and has given instructions for a full investigation into the claims.


Drago Hedl is a correspondent for the Split-based Feral Tribune and a regular contributor for IWPR