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

Serbia: Milosevic Trial Shocks Liberals

Human rights activists in Serbia have been horrified by the opening proceedings of the Milosevic trial in The Hague. Is it all going dreadfully wrong?
By Tim Judah

Commenting on the beginning of the Milosevic trial, one Western diplomat said that the prosecution were just discovering what dozens of international officials and peace emissaries had, during the Yugoslav wars, already found to their cost. That is that the former Serbian leader was, "a tough egg and bloody good". He meant, of course, "bloody good" at fighting his corner.


Liberal Serbs, especially those who argued that Milosevic should be sent to The Hague, have been horrified by the opening of proceedings against their former leader, which have been shown live on Serbian television and, so far, proved popular viewing.


Small but significant errors made by the prosecution in their opening statements and weak performances by the first witnesses, including the former Kosovo leader Mahmud Bakalli - who left mainstream politics more than two decades ago - have left many ordinary Serbs marvelling at the way Milosevic is dealing with case.


One poll in the weekly magazine Nin showed that 41.6 per cent of those polled gave their former leader five out of five for his performance so far.


Branislav Ivkovic, the leader of Milosevic's Socialists in the Serbian parliament, is more than satisfied. "He has decided to work for the Serbian people and not for himself. He has broken the media lies produced about us," he said.


By contrast Biljana Kovacevic-Vuco, the head of Belgrade's Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, says that the prosecution's weak opening gambits have been disastrous. "People are starting to celebrate Milosevic's 'excellent role' in defending himself like a 'real Serb', " she said. " Of course, they really blame Milosevic for losing the war, not for starting it."


Kovacevic-Vuco, like other Serbs who've supported the tribunal, fear that their struggle, far from now being vindicated, will, unless the prosecution can do a better job, end up rebounding on them.


One of their main arguments in favour of the war crimes tribunal was that Serbs should face up to the enormity of the crimes committed in their name. But, thus far, Milosevic has skilfully managed to identify himself with his people and denigrate the assertion that only he is on trial for war crimes.


He has argued that, despite being president of Serbia and then Yugoslavia, he either knew nothing of terrible deeds being committed or had no way of stopping them.


In this way he is reinforcing the prejudice already shared by most of his countrymen that the tribunal is nothing but an anti-Serb kangaroo court and "victor's justice". If this succeeds, then, far from having to face up to crimes such as the massacre of up to 7,000 Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica in 1995, most Serbs will, in fact believe, that Milosevic is, as he has already claimed, "the moral victor".


Another significant slice of Serbian public opinion is saying that because of the prosecution's weak opening at the trial, they were right all along in demanding that Milosevic be tried in Belgrade first for crimes against Serbs.


In fact, thus far, Milosevic has simply repeated the same old propaganda and demagogy that was the stock in the trade of his years in power. He is repeating that absolutely everyone else was responsible for the destruction of the former Yugoslavia and that all along he was a peacemaker.


This has left even Zoran Djinjdic, the Serbian premier who rammed through the legally questionable extradition of Milosevic to The Hague last year, a worried man. He says that the poor performance of the prosecution has helped undermine the court's already very weak credibility in Serbia and that that is bad for the future of his government and the country especially at a time when there is pressure on Belgrade to hand over more indicted war criminals.


He argues that since The Hague tribunal is seen as a Western institution, its failures will play into the hands of his political enemies, who are far less keen on the tough economic reforms which are the prerequisite for a rapid integration with the rest of Europe. He says that they will say, "they [the West] are not serious and they are just like us - a bit of talk, a bit of manipulation but not much substance."


Perhaps in part because of this, Djindjic says he is not prepared to try and arrest former Bosnian Serb military leader General Ratko Mladic, because it would not be worth the political cost if young Serb policemen died in the attempt. "We are trying to create a democratic state... and it takes time. Now they say you should do that which 50,000 NATO troops did not do in Bosnia - it is not fair," he said.


On the other side of the political divide those who line up behind Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica also believe that things are going badly in The Hague. Predrag Simic, the federal leader's foreign policy advisor, says that while the prosecution have tried to make Milosevic "look like Hitler and the Serbs like Nazis" Milosevic has cleverly used this to his advantage, playing his own role "like Georgi Dimitrov", the Bulgarian communist who defeated the Nazis at the infamous, trumped up, Reichstag fire trial in 1933. In this way, says Simic, "people are tempted to fall in love with him again".


Simic adds that Western pressure to turn over more indicted war criminals means that Yugoslavia itself is "hostage" to The Hague. That is to say, while there are delicate on-going negotiations on the future of the joint state between Serbia and Montenegro, any move by Djindjic to extradite more men could be the final nail in the Yugoslav coffin if former Milosevic loyalists then quit the federal government.


There is little doubt that the course of the Milosevic trial will have consequences for Serbia. But, despite the TV ratings, the fears of politicians and intellectuals, it's also possible that too much is being made of the whole event. Branka Prpa, the historian and widow of Slavko Curuvija, the newspaper editor who had come out against Milosevic and was then murdered on April 11, 1999, says bitterly, that in end, "Most people don't care...they just don't care."


Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia published by Yale University Press.


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