Monday March 13, 2006
When the Bosnian journalist Mirna Jancic went to The Hague to report on the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, she was repelled by the way in which the defendant, not infrequently, managed to turn the proceedings into a soap opera with himself as leading man. In the blandly modern courtroom, which reminded her of the command deck of Starship Enterprise, Milosevic, conducting his own defence, rudely questioned the veracity of prosecution witnesses who had lost family and friends in the wars that he had instigated. In spite of reproofs from the court, he rambled on in self-important fashion, quoted proverbs, cited supposed historical parallels, told jokes, and made, or at least began to make, political speeches. He insisted on calling a long list of witnesses who could offer no factual evidence but seemed to be there mainly to demonstrate that he, Milosevic, was a man with many connections. Yet, even so, Jancic wrote, "In my eyes the court represented victory over nihilism. Here was something that would not allow things to be forgotten or crimes to go unpunished."
Milosevic's determined filibustering drew out the trial month after month, and some may fancifully see his death, natural or otherwise, as a kind of triumphal last manoeuvre. Yet Milosevic's behaviour in court was of a piece with his political career as a whole. Tactically shrewd, strategically inept and morally void, he went down the road to war without ever really considering why he was doing so, what the human costs would be, and whether there was any real chance of building an enlarged Serbia on the ruins of the Yugoslav federation. His own commitment to the Greater Serbia idea was lukewarm. It was a vehicle useful to him rather than a vision he served. Other Serbian leaders and intellectuals were genuine believers in that project, which does not excuse, but goes some way to explain, the crimes for which they were responsible.
But, for Milosevic, all that mattered, it seemed, was to stay on top and to stay ahead of the game. Because he was wily and sharp, he time and again escaped the consequences of his miscalculations, aided in this by western leaders so fearful of involvement in the Balkans that they allowed themselves to be taken in by his apparent rationality, his charm and his quickness of mind. A judicious assessment of the situation in the former Yugoslavia should have led to a much earlier understanding of the fact that Milosevic and Serbia were bound to be losers in the end, given the potential strength of Croatia and Bosnia. Even when the military balance began to shift against Serbia, western countries continued to deal with Milosevic, giving him a major role in the flawed Bosnian settlement, and opening the way towards the final tragedy of the Kosovo war. It was only then that the scales really fell from western eyes.
Milosevic's legacy will nevertheless be the opposite of what he would have wished for. His actions helped establish the idea of liberal intervention that emerged in the 90s after the first Iraq war and in response to the Rwandan massacres and the Balkan conflicts. Assuming a right to violently intervene in the affairs of Serbia's neighbours, he ended by provoking a series of interventions against Serbia that established the principle that neither sovereignty nor specious arguments about civil war can protect a leader or a regime guilty of crimes against its own and neighbouring peoples. Expecting that he himself would escape punishment, and indeed would remain in power even if Serbia were defeated, he found himself ejected from office and handed over to a new kind of international court. The trials of others, including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, seem likely, sooner or later, to follow, unless they cheat justice by taking their own lives. But whatever happens in their cases, the ending of the culture of impunity owes much to Slobodan Milosevic.