Claims of Exoneration: The Case of Slobodan Milošević

Every age needs its cult of demonology. It creates a social target of unified indignation and moral outrage. Finally, we can find a figure, prey upon it, and feel good that things are orderly in the world. In the savage wars of the Balkans during the 1990s, the identification of good sides over bad, of noble warriors over ignoble ones, led to the discomforts and complex procedures of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

While the trials have focused on figures across the ethnic divide, a heavy emphasis has been placed on those connected with Bosnian Serb and Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army units. The picture that regularly appears is that of unwarranted aggressor seeking to quell the legitimate ambitions of freedom fighting Croats, Bosnians and Slovenians.

The picture that has emerged from the various trials has been more complex than given credit for. There have been puzzling exonerations and inconsistent convictions interspersed with lucid observation. While the focus of ICTY proceedings has yielded convictions for such figures as the unrepentant Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, it has also surprised others, with the acquittal of the noisy firebrand Vojislav Šešelj.

So much in these cases has hinged on contested terms of the joint criminal enterprise, a redrawn variant of the conspiracy charges from the Nuremberg Trials that was meant envelop planners and perpetrators with legal seamlessness. The provenance of this – US law enforcement against gang activities – is highly indicative of its limits and distortions.

A prime point of contention (not that it was a point for many commentators at all) was how far Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević could be implicated in the mess. He was the bogeyman supremo of the 1990s, the great demon figure who had inherited the mantle from an assortment of African strongmen in the wounded consciousness of the West.

His guilt behind the conflict was assumed; what mattered was a legal confirmation. That never formally arrived. The legal proceedings at The Hague against the former president were dragged out; Milošević fought tooth and nail from the dock. Ailing health took its toll, and his life, in a Hague cell in March 2006.

Earlier this month, British journalist Neil Clark decided to swim in the murky sea of responsibility by suggesting that Milošević had been exonerated. He based much of his report on Andy Wilcoxson’s beavering through the March 24 Karadžić judgment.[1]

“The ICTY’s conclusion, that one of the most demonized figures of the modern era was innocent of the most heinous crimes he was accused of, really should have made headlines across the world.”[2] But there were no ripples across legal and diplomatic circles, and general media lines were silent.

“Even the ICTY buried it, deep in its 2,590 page verdict in the trial of Bosnian Serbia leader Radovan Karadžić who was convicted in March of the genocide (at Srebrenica), war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

This burying, as it was described, took the form of the view (para 3460, p. 1303) of the Trial judgment, that “there was no sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Milošević agreed with the common plan”.

That common plan entailed the adoption of ethnic cleansing policies towards non-Serbs, straddling a gamut of atrocities. But the judgment also found that “Milošević provided assistance in the form of personnel, provisions and arms to Bosnian Serbs during the conflict.” What destroyed any notion of a common plan was the testiness of the relationship, which had entirely soured by 1994. The gap between Belgrade and Bosnian Serbs, had become a rift.

The Trial chamber observed as early as March 1992 that “there was apparent discord between [Karadžić] and Milošević in meetings with international representatives, during which Milošević and other Serbian leaders openly criticised Bosnian Serb leaders of committing ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the war for their own purposes.”

The entire Yugoslavian experiment had been an attempt to forge common ground between warring tribes, a socially engineered identity that would have resisted, and in some ways proved resistant, to history. Massacres, memory jarring crucifixions and forced ethnic displacements soon re-opened that bloody door.

As such, the ICTY judgment remained specific to Karadžić, not Milošević, with side comments always being a case of dicta. No formal determination had ever been made about the latter in that regard, though it did provide useful titbits about the difficulties of imputing such responsibility, especially in the specifics of the Bosnian conflict. The chamber, in that case, could only acknowledge that the objectives of Belgrade and those of the Bosnian Serbs did, over time, diverge.

Milošević’s departure from the world of the living entails speculation and ire from those who regard “Clark and his ilk” as collaborators in creating “an alternate reality”, the stuff of denial in the face of atrocity, as Gordana Knezević charges.[3]

The one sterling point to take away from this is that the ideologues are always going to make hay as a certain sun shines. The carcass of Yugoslavia was being split and racked, and respective powers were doing the rounds of pinching with varying degrees of savagery. Milošević saw his role as carver and consolidator, a feat achieved with brutality when necessary. But the Bosnian Serb leadership, in time, became an uncontrollable liability.

Any sweet noble reading of the former Serb president is hard to sustain. His hold on the media was infamous, his assault on critics known. In time, he became a caricature of trumped up demagoguery, ruinous to his country and state. Various figures who took to the barricades in Serbia against him also paid with their lives. Journalists such as Slavko Ćuruvija became victims in discussing the unmentionable. Ivan Stambolić was slain in August 2000 having promised to stand against Milošević.

These killings remain obscured in the babble of denial or revision that tends to emanate form such figures as Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić. Every quest to find a bogeyman is also accompanied by one of extreme purity. Dačić’s colleague, Milutin Mrkonjić, has gone so far as to proclaim the obvious lack of guilt his former leader, while insisting on giving him “a monument in Belgrade.”[4]

Ever common in such posturing is the refusal to believe in the grey matters of human life, the shades as they deepen in conflict. Milošević was never innocent in any historical sense, but neither was the Yugoslav project or its progenitors.


[1] http://www.slobodan-milosevic.org/news/smorg-aw071816.htm

[2] https://www.rt.com/op-edge/354362-slobodan-milosevic-exonerated-us-nato/

[3] http://www.rferl.org/content/milosevic-war-crime-deniers-feed-receptive-audience/27910664.html

[4] http://www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/milosevic-s-old-allies-celebrate-his-innocence–08-16-2016

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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