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

Primakov Stumbles Over Milosevic Script

Some of ex-Russian statesman’s remarks will have done the defendant no favours.
By Ana Uzelac

Former Russian premier Yevgeny Primakov is the last in the sequence of high-ranking Moscow politicians to testify in defence of Slobodan Milosevic, but unlike the testimonies of the two previous Russian witnesses, the story Primakov had to tell to the UN-court on November 29 did not entirely favour the defendant.


A seasoned intelligence officer, who in the early Nineties served as the head of Russia’s intelligence service, Primakov said in court that Moscow’s main interest in the Balkans in the early Nineties was to establish whether NATO was exploiting the conflict to establish a presence in non-alliance countries following the end of the cold war.


He said the Russian government came to the conclusion that this was what it was trying to do.


Throughout his testimony, Primakov tried to depict Milosevic as a peacemaker and cast NATO as the villain, but offered little hard evidence to back his assessments.


In addition, the witness told the court that in his view, the administration of former US president Bill Clinton sought to “weaken Serbia, not to allow it to gain strength and even finish the process of its disintegration”. The reason for this, he suggested, was the fact that Serbia was the only former Yugoslav republic where the post-communists still held power.


Primakov’s “western colleagues” at the time had the idea “that after failing to keep Yugoslavia intact, Milosevic embarked on a project to create a ‘Greater Serbia’”. But the witness said he disagreed with this interpretation, adding that during their first meeting in January 1993, Milosevic vehemently denied having any such plans.


“When I asked about plans for Greater Serbia, he said emphatically: ‘No’,” Primakov said. “He told me: this could only be achieved by great bloodshed, and I am not ready to do that.”


But the prosecution then confronted the witness with stenographic notes of the session of a Belgrade-based council for “harmonisation of state policies” - a consultative body made up of representatives of Bosnian Serbs and the Yugoslav government - held just a day after this meeting. There, Milosevic was noted speaking about the “need for unity of Serbian people”.


“We de facto have it,” Milosevic said. “The question is how to get that recognition now …how to turn the situation that exists de facto… into being de jure.”


Primakov initially tried to question the authenticity of the document, but when assured it came from the Belgrade government itself, he only repeated that Milosevic never spoke to him in those terms.


Throughout the session, Primakov insisted that in numerous peace negotiations, where he participated as a Russian representative in the six-nation Contact Group, the defendant insisted on a peaceful solution to the conflict.


He cited as evidence Milosevic’s introduction of a blockade against the Bosnian Serb government after they refused to ratify Vance-Owen’s peace plan in summer 1993.


After some confusion about which blockade he meant - Belgrade introduced two embargoes against the Bosnian Serbs, one in 1993, which was short-lived, and another longer one in 1994 - Prosecutor Geoffrey Nice finally read from yet another set of stenographic notes.


These were taken at the session of Yugoslav Supreme Defence Counsel - rump Yugoslavia’s supreme military command body - on August 25, 1995. There, Milosevic told functionaries that “the blockade was merely a formality. Aid flowed daily”.


“He never told you that, did he?” Nice asked the witness. Unamused, Primakov answered, “Never. Milosevic never told me this blockade was just a formality.”


“Your close intelligence links and trust notwithstanding, he never told you about how blockade was just a formality,” Nice insisted.


“I can only repeat what I already said: I never heard him say that,” Primakov said.


When asked by the prosecutor for the third time why his “close ally” failed to keep Russia properly informed about its real policies, Primakov said, “Russia never said it was an ally of Milosevic.”


Primakov was most likely telling the truth, says Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist who covered the NATO intervention in Kosovo and the turmoil it provoked on the Russian political scene. Gessen suggested that Moscow’s principal motive for being interested in Belgrade was to show - both to the West and to its own public - it still played a decisive role in post-cold war Europe.


The ensuing failure to prevent NATO air strikes on Serbia, she said, was a bitter pill for Primakov's government to swallow, "It showed nobody took Russia into account anymore."


When cross-examined about Kosovo, Primakov appeared to be aware of the often-criminal character of Serbian police operations there before and during the NATO raids. He confirmed that in his book about the conflict he wrote of the “ethnic cleansing” that Serb forces were conducting in Kosovo.


"Based on our assessment, the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) based in Albanian settlements attacked Serb settlements then returned to their bases. At the time, they started the operation to expel KLA from Albanian settlements. It frequently took the form of cleansing the terrain. Civilians from both ethnic groups suffered," Nice read from the book, with Primakov agreeing that this was the case.


But these casualties he eventually blamed on the Albanian “provocateurs”, who in his words were “always the ones to begin”.


Primakov then appeared to try to support his contention that NATO was using the conflict as a pretext to establish a presence in the region. Cross-examined by Milosevic, he seemed to suggest that at the Rambouillet Kosovo peace talks in 1999, Belgrade was told to accept an international military presence in Kosovo or face bombardment.


“Did we in Belgrade do anything to provoke NATO strikes on Yugoslavia?” Milosevic asked the witness. Primakov agreed that Belgrade didn’t.


But later, the witness appeared to concede that Belgrade did not prevent continued attacks against Albanian civilians in Kosovo, which were the official focus of Rambouillet talks. He however said he believed Milosevic “tried to reign in” those who conducted them.


Primakov went on to tell the court how on the day the NATO bombardments started, he was on his way to America for a meeting of a special US-Russian working group that was negotiating bilateral economic and political relations between the two former cold-war enemies. The witness said that when he heard from the US vice-president Al Gore that NATO bombardments were to go ahead, he ordered his plane to return to Moscow.


He also charged that six days into the bombings western countries ignored indications from Milosevic - conveyed by Primakov - that Belgrade would cease hostilities. But he did not make it clear whether those included agreement to foreign military presence in Kosovo.


Ana Uzelac is IWPR project manager in The Hague.


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