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

Serbs Tire of Epic Milosevic Trial

These days only the former president’s most loyal supporters are interested in following the course of his trial.
By Ana Uzelac
The trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, which has entered its fifth year, is these days almost unnoticed by the people of Belgrade – where he governed for more than a decade, presiding over the country involved in three brutal wars that changed the face of the region in the Nineties.

The residents of the Serbian capital had much more exciting issues to mull over last week: the potential arrest of another suspected war criminal – the elusive Bosnian Serb army general Ratko Mladic; the possibility of parliament declaring Kosovo “occupied”, in the event of it gaining independence in final status negotiations scheduled to start next week; the size of the majority that is needed for the approaching Montenegrin referendum on independence to be valid; and bird flu.

With so much to preoccupy them, none seemed inclined to waste time musing over such a lacklustre trial.

Serbia’s former leader has been sitting in the Hague court for over four years now, running his own defence against the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed during the ten years of his rule. The Bosnian indictment includes the heaviest charge of all – genocide.

The thrice-weekly court hearings are still being shown unabridged on the independent Belgrade television B92. A range of guests fill in the breaks with comments and explanations. The whole thing is reminiscent of football game broadcast, with barely intelligible pundits constantly interrupting the action.

But unlike football, the Milosevic case is followed mainly by Serbian housewives or pensioners, the only two social groups that systematically spend their mornings at home and form the backbone of support for Milosevic’s socialist party and the radical nationalist opposition.

Only a handful of highbrow, low-circulation Serbian print media offer balanced, analytical coverage of the trial – often quite critical, too. Much louder are the high-circulation Belgrade tabloids that focus on the more histrionic aspects of the case – the raucous testimonies, rare courtroom incidents and real or invented health-related issues.

Opinions about the trial are now so fixed that an exchange of views on the subject is almost impossible. More often than not these views are hostile towards the case and the Hague court in general - though not necessarily supportive of Milosevic.

The views range from xenophobic conspiracy theories to a more widely held grudge that the inordinately long trial is an obstacle to the political recovery of the state. In fact, many here believe that its epic length and the constant TV coverage only strengthens the sense of collective humiliation, keeps alive the bitter debate about the war and fuels the nationalists.

The atmosphere in Serbia is indeed these days rather like that which prevailed in the late years of Milosevic era – public debates brimming with collective self-pity and aggressive nationalism and populism catering for the voters’ most base political instincts.

Not all is the same as during Milosevic times, though. The persistent work of a handful of dedicated media and NGOs, who are systematically uncovering the country’s past, has slowly brought back to Serbia the horrors of crimes committed during the Nineties. The Milosevic trial significantly helped in these efforts last year, when a video showing the executions of Srebrenica Muslims by a Serbian paramilitary unit, the Scorpions, was screened in court – causing the first real moral consternation here since the end of the war.

As a result, few are prepared to deny that the crimes listed in the Milosevic indictment actually took place.

The resentment is now focused on their context and interpretation.

Taken together, the three connected indictments are not just intended to enumerate crimes allegedly committed by the defendant, but are also an attempt to prove that the wars were part of a one project aimed at creating a Serb-dominated state on the ruins of former Yugoslavia.

Unsurprisingly, classification of a decade of Serbia’s recent history in terms of a “joint criminal enterprise” is hard to swallow for those who genuinely believed the Milosevic regime was defending their Serb brothers throughout the former Yugoslavia. Consequently, they dismiss this as a “politicised” approach to justice.

It seems that many would prefer a shorter trial that would focus on determining whether Milosevic is guilty of some of the crimes, leaving out the wider context – much like the approach adopt for the prosecution of the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

But it is exactly this attempt to describe, contextualise and interpret the entirety of the crimes committed during Milosevic’s years in power that may in the long run turn out to be the main strength of the case.

The trial tells the story of what happened not just to a list of victims, but also to entire communities whose ethnic and social structures were violently changed for good. It offers valuable insights into the political and societal mechanisms that made crimes possible or even inevitable.

The broad canvas of the Milosevic indictments also serves as a commemoration - the prosecutors have marked on it, if not every murdered or missing person by name, then at least the fact of their death or disappearance; they tried to somehow preserve the memory of vanished communities; and show how political decisions determined the fate of the victims.

In this way, the trial has also become a record of what was lost in the former Yugoslavia and what still needs to be restored: victims’ dignity, communities’ identities and the rule of law.

But all this has taken within the framework of an extremely complex legal system, built on the basis of the cumbersome common law procedures, offering guarantees of maximum fairness to the accused – and giving him plenty of room for political grandstanding and manipulation. The combination of ambitious indictment and bulky legal system has indeed made the trial long, complex and prone to a risk of embarrassing failure.

Four years down the road, it is clear that many things about the trial could have been done better or more elegantly. But none of that would have changed the prosecution’s fundamental and, for many here, fundamentally indigestible message: that the way in which Milosevic regime went about defending - real or imagined - Serb national interests in the Nineties was criminal in nature. And that millions were only too easily convinced to trust and follow him.

Under the unceasing criticism of friends and foes alike, the Milosevic trial is telling a complicated, nuanced and in essence deeply tragic story of a dark period in one nation’s history. True, four years seem like an awfully long time to tell it. But it’s just a fraction of the time it will take for it to be heard.

Ana Uzelac followed the Milosevic trial as IWPR’s project manager in The Hague. She currently working on a new international initiative to combat judicial impunity.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


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