MILOSEVIC: A LIFE IN DENIAL OF TRUTHS
March 30, 2006
A LIFE IN DENIAL OF TRUTHS
BY ROY GUTMAN
About 10 days after Serb paramilitary forces attacked the town of Zvornik at the start of the Bosnian war in April 1992, an American diplomat called on Slobodan Milosevic and complained that “volunteer” forces were continuing to pour into Bosnia from Serbia to wreak havoc on the civilian population.The Serbian president replied that he was not responsible, “but if this sort of thing was going on, he would try to stop it,” diplomat Ralph Johnson later recalled.
The paramilitary “Tigers,” who were executing civilians in the streets, terrorizing the population and sacking the town, had, in fact, coordinated their attack with the official Yugoslav army.
Their leader, Zeljko Raznjatovic, was even able to summon artillery cover from the federal army on demand. Milosevic was well in the picture, having received updates from the war front hourly if not more frequently, according to senior army officers.Zvornik showed Milosevic at his most cunning – using unofficial proxies under official command, pretending ignorance and lying to the international community. The attack on Zvornik was also a trial run for a combined army-paramilitary operation, which proved so successful that he repeated it in Bosnian towns all along the Drina River valley, denying any role at all times.
Bosnia was the second of the four wars Milosevic instigated between 1991 and 1999 in his drive to create a “greater Serbia” on the ruins of the multiethnic Yugoslav state. He ducked responsibility and lied at every turn, and until he was deposed from power and sent by a successor government to The Hague for trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, he never had to account for anything during more than a decade in power. When he died in his cell at The Hague Tribunal yesterday, Milosevic averted a final judgment of his role in the chaos he had visited upon his former country and upon Europe.
The crimes for which he was charged were without parallel in Europe since Hitler’s rampage in World War II. They include the murder of thousands of men in concentration camps, the systematic rape of thousands of women, the destruction of cities such as Sarajevo and Vukovar, the devastation of the economy of the entire region, the massacre of at least 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica and the near-destruction of the Bosnian civilization, a multiethnic jewel in the southeast corner of Europe.
By never admitting responsibility, Milosevic managed to keep the loyalty of many of his fellow Serbs, who accepted his claim that he was protecting them from a ‘fundamentalist Muslim state’ in their midst.
Struggle to retain power
His emergence on the European scene followed one of the unexpected turning points of history, the peaceful transition throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from one-party Communist states to multiparty incipient democracies. Post World War II Yugoslavia had been Communist but independent of Soviet control, and under its founder Josip Broz Tito had developed a socialist economy with a human face.
Communism collapsed in Yugoslavia as everywhere else due largely to the corruption that comes with being in power for nearly a half century, and Milosevic, a trained apparatchik who rose through party ranks, was the first to discover a way to stay in power after his party lost public support.Using the Serb predominance in the federal army and police, Milosevic imposed Serb control over Kosovo, an ethnic Albanian province of Serbia, and seized parts of Croatia, a mostly Roman Catholic republic, and Bosnia, a melting pot of Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox.
He couldn’t have done it without the acquiescence of the United States and western European states. Upon Newsday’s first reports of mass killings in concentration camps in 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush said the conflict under way had “ancient and complex roots” and the United States had no role to play.
It took 3 1/2 years and the massacre at Srebrenica before Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, reluctantly led NATO into an intervention that halted the war. In 1999, Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, organized NATO behind a U.S. air intervention in Kosovo to prevent another massive atrocity on the level of Bosnia, where as many as 200,000 civilians died.
In her previous job as UN ambassador, Albright had led the drive to set up The Hague Tribunal, the first war crimes court since Nazis were put on trial at Nuremberg. Milosevic went into the dock in mid-2001 and did his best to turn the proceedings into a political circus as he refused outside counsel and conducted his own trial. He admitted no responsibility for any of the atrocities, insisting, for example, that Srebrenica was an “anti-Serb plot.” He did not live to have judgment presented against him, and there will be those in his home country who accept his denials. But for everyone else, including all the coming generations in Serbia, the facts will be on record.
Roy Gutman reported the series of wars over the breakup of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s for Newsday, including the “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia.