In death as in life, former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic was contemptuous of the world. The heart attack that claimed his life while being tried for war crimes may have kept a tribunal from declaring him guilty, but there was no doubt about the eventual outcome. Mr. Milosevic was wrong — and on the wrong side of history. His victims should have some comfort knowing that he did not escape justice.
While some will no doubt claim that Milosevic was a martyr for the Serb nation, he was in fact its destroyer. Until the 1990s, Yugoslavia was a model of ethnic harmony, an example of socialist moderation and a bridge between East and West during the Cold War. After taking power in the 1980s, Milosevic oversaw the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the destruction of its remnants in war and the ruin of that image. It was all done in the name of protecting “the Serbian nation.”
His country’s slide began June 28, 1989, when Milosevic went to the province of Kosovo and told the Serbs who gathered to hear him that the Serb nation’s defeat 600 years before at that spot would never be replicated. The nationalism unleashed that day resonated among Serbs living in parts of Yugoslavia dominated by other ethnic groups. They took up arms against various provincial governments of Yugoslavia, fearful that their state would break up and they would find themselves citizens of another country. They fought to keep their homes within “Greater Serbia,” even if it meant cleansing the territory of all other native inhabitants. The first battles were fought in what is now Croatia and then the bloody, brutal fighting spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina. Eventually, NATO intervention forced a settlement on the combatants.
But as war was waged, Milosevic kept an eye on Kosovo and slowly tightened Belgrade’s control over the province. The autonomy that Kosovo had enjoyed was eliminated and Serbs did their best to drive all Kosovars from the province to ensure that it would remain dominated by Serbs. Again, NATO was forced to intervene and a massive aerial assault convinced the Serbs that they would have to retreat from Kosovo. A deal was made, autonomy restored and the eventual settlement of Kosovo’s status put off to the future.
Thus, rather than being hailed as the savior of Serb nationalism, he was the instrument of the dismemberment of that state. Tired of the destruction and isolation that he brought upon them, the Serb people forced him from power in 2000. A year later, the new government handed him over to the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, where he became the first sitting head of government to be indicted for war crimes. He went on trial for 66 counts of war crimes and genocide: By some estimates, the destruction he wrought was responsible for 250,000 deaths.
As could be expected, some claimed that his death was not natural and that Milosevic had been poisoned. He had complained as much in recent weeks. But his heart was weak, and he had sought medical treatment in Russia earlier in the year. That request was denied.
Others — or perhaps many of the same people — will call Milosevic a martyr for the Serb cause. That is inevitable: Denial can run deep and it is easier to believe in Milosevic than the brutal, savage and inhuman things he did in the service of his cause.
Some will say that Milosevic cheated justice. True, the tribunal was not able to deliver a verdict. But he spent the last years of his life in jail, forced to face accusations and victims that he could not evade. Milosevic died in prison. Just as important, he was forced to see the destruction of all he cherished. He surely knew that he made that possible by setting in motion the awful chain of events that brought such devastation. He died before he was forced to witness the final loss of Kosovo — which is likely to follow from talks currently being mediated by the United Nations — but he was too shrewd a student of politics to escape the logic of the inevitability of that outcome. He must have been aware of how history — even if, or especially if, written by the victors — would judge him.
Milosevic’s death should reinforce the pressure on Belgrade to hand over other fugitives from justice. The two most important are Mr. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader, and Mr. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader. They are charged with being responsible for the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica during the war. They share with Milosevic blame for the horrors unleashed during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The ultimate rehabilitation of the Serb people, and the ideas for which they fought, will only be possible when they too are brought to justice and join Milosevic in the dock.
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