Turning the Page on the Milosevic Era

A supporter of former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic bids farewell during a memorial service on March 18 in the center of his home town of Pozarevac before the funeral. (Photo: Valentina Petrova / AFP-Getty Images)

Former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic, 64, died of a heart attack on March 11 in his prison cell at The Hague, where he was on trial for war crimes. His funeral made front-page news in European newspapers.

The European press closely followed preparations for Milosevic's funeral, trying to gauge the political sentiments in Serbia today. Above all, commentators noted that the way the funeral was handled reveals the fractures in Serbia's political life and a rift in Serbian society.

The arrangements were a compromise between the minority pro-Western government and a temporary alliance, forged in a moment of political opportunism, between Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (S.P.S.) and the Radical party. The two parties' demand for the honor of a state funeral and a burial in Belgrade's "Alley of the Great" was denied. Instead, the government allowed a public wake in Belgrade and a private funeral in Milosevic's hometown (initially Russia was rumored to be an alternative location). Serbian President Boris Tadic explained the authorities' stance in Politika: "He was the head of a regime that almost destroyed Serbia." Members of Milosevic's family, all of whom reside outside Serbia, were not in attendance reportedly for security reasons.

The ceremony started in Belgrade with a rally organized by the S.P.S., which drew an estimated 50,000-80,000 people, and ended with a smaller crowd in Pozarevac, where Milosevic was buried in the garden of his family house. While some newspapers expressed surprise at the number of mourners, The Times of London (March 18) reminded readers that "the crowd in Belgrade, though larger than many had expected, was far smaller than the 500,000 who turned out for the 2003 funeral of assassinated Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic, who had sent Milosevic to the tribunal two years earlier." And while for The Independent (March 19) this was "a state funeral in all but name," it was for The Guardian (March 19) " by any standards, a bizarre final journey, more suited to a beloved family pet than a former head of state."

Milosevic's death turned into a rallying point for Serbian nationalists, who organized the Belgrade demonstration. "The sudden death of Milosevic is a sort of a political gift to those who have always considered the former prime minister Zoran Djindjic (murdered on March 12, 2003) a traitor guilty of selling out their hero Milosevic to international law," said Le Figaro (March 13). The crowd's slogans — "The Hague-Murderers of Serbs," "NATO-fascists," and "Heroes don't die-they become legends" — made commentators wonder if Serbia is ready to turn away from its past and cooperate on the arrest of the two remaining war crimes fugitives, Radko Mladic and Radovan Kardadzic.

Yet was this just one last outburst of nationalism or a sign of something more permanent? Some commentators were pessimistic: "That remains the enduring problem: the aggrieved and bitter nationalism that remains in Serbia and that is being inflamed again as Montenegro and Kosovo win more independence." The same opinion is expressed by Le Figaro, which said, "the fall of Milosevic in 2000 did not bring about the death of his political ideas, nor the end of the people of the old regime, nor the end of the dream of Greater Serbia built on the ruins of former Yugoslavia." Le Figaro warned that in 2006, with negotiations on Kosovo and a referendum on independence in Montenegro, there is a risk that Serbians may be more receptive to nationalist discourse.

Yet others judged that a big part of Serbia, a country that aspires to membership in the European Union, has long turned the page on the Milosevic era. "This week, he was seriously mourned only by a small band of old folk. Young people are more concerned with the future and trying to live like their counterparts elsewhere in Europe," said The Economist (March 18). Bulgarian Standart News (March 19) said that even in his death the "ex-leader divides the people of Serbia," and many young people "do not care about the funeral of Milosevic." The Guardian (March 19) agreed and said, "Milosevic's legacy, it appears is not a fragmented country, but a fractured society, in which pessimism, indifference, and even boredom rule." Many newspapers reported on the anti-Milosevic demonstration that took place on the day of the funeral in Belgrade. "They were younger, upbeat and looking to the future. They were blowing whistles and holding balloons. There could not have been a greater contrast with their rivals up the road," said the BBC (March 18).

"But some analysts said the death of Milosevic could mark the beginning of the end of a burden that was weighing down Serbia even after Milosevic was sent to the Hague tribunal in 2001," said The International Herald Tribune. Even Le Figaro, in the pessimistic article cited above, acknowledged that this could be a breaking point for Serbia: "The end of Milosevic could give Serbia a chance to move closer to a democratic future, the way the death of former Croatian president Franjo Tudjman did in Croatia in 1999."

Zarko Korac, of the opposition Social Democrats Union, believes that the demonstrators in Belgrade were not representative of Serbia today. "After four lost wars and thousands of killed and ruined lives, Serbs have firmly rejected Milosevic's disastrous politics. He is history … There is a strong democratic alternative today in Serbia. But it must get its act together," he said in The Irish Examiner (March 20).

Tribunal Under Attack

Milosevic's death puts an end to the first international trial of a head of state for crimes against humanity, and casts a shadow on the emerging system of international criminal law. Last week traditional critics of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia were quick to jump to the attack; those who sympathized with Milosevic's victims felt cheated by the lack of justice; yet others judged that, despite its flaws, the trial left invaluable historical evidence.

The reaction against the tribunal has been most virulent in Russia where Milosevic had sought medical treatment (denied by the court) shortly before his death. According to Le Monde (March 19), the Russian Duma adopted a resolution with 437 (out of 450) votes asking for the immediate closure of the tribunal, citing its "double standards" and "extreme politicization." Le Monde also quoted the Communists' leader Guenadi Zyuganov, who announced on TV that Milosevic was "eliminated" by "NATO and the new masters of the world."

In an article entitled "Milosevic — His Gradual, Prolonged, and Protracted Murder," government-affiliated Pravda (March 16) said, "Callous irresponsibility of the International Penal Court amounts to wanton murder and a gradual and purposeful process of torture, which eventually cost Slobodan Milosevic his life. The International Penal Court at The Hague is in serious trouble, having breached international law on the human rights of prisoners and the legally afforded processes for sick persons in its control. However, in today's world, where rules and conventions and agreements and laws and charters can be broken capriciously, where any common rules of decency from yesteryear are swept away by a clique of elitist barons who pull the world's economic strings, what to expect?"

Another critic of the tribunal was former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who spoke at the funeral. "History will prove Milosevic right. Charges are just that, charges. The trial did not have facts," he said.

The tribunal came under attack from other European media, but for an entirely different reason: its failure to render justice to the victims of Milosevic. "In the light of his death, the tribunal has got the worst of all possible outcomes — no verdict on any of the indictments," said the BBC (March 11). The lengthy procedures, the massive trial (originally consisting of three separate indictments containing numerous charges, many of which were hard to prove) and the decision to allow Milosevic to conduct his own defense, and thus prolong the trial, were cited as the most serious flaws by many commentators.

"How come four years were not enough for an international court to deliver a sentence? Four years, a budget of $276 million dollars a year, and 1146 of the best legal experts in the world? These questions might be legally irrelevant, but they are fully legitimate today, when the ideologue of three bloody wars enters history as 'innocent.' This is the conclusion when an indicted man dies before the end of his trial," said the Bulgarian Dnevnik (March 20). From a Balkan perspective, the same article continues, this trial can be judged a failure: "Some will remember this trial as a farce, others as an enormous and ambitious undertaking. In both cases, for the people of the Balkans the conclusion is the same: the world has failed to understand them once again, and justice is impossible."

The Serbs, who decisively brought down Milosevic in 2000, were equally cheated by his death, as Le Figaro (March 15) reminded: "Milosevic's detention in the Hague did not allow for him to be tried in Serbia for the political murders he ordered." The Times of London (March 13), on the other hand, believed the "messy trial was imperfect but not in vain."

"Those hours of testimony may prove one of the most valuable products of the trial … For those who believed him guilty, the evidence against him is there — four years of it. Those in Serbia who saw him as their hero will no doubt continue to see him that way. No evidence presented in the trial was going to change that," said The Times.

According to The International Herald Tribune (March 13), history will now be the judge: "It would be easy to dismiss the trial against Milosevic — and the work of the war crimes tribunal generally — as a huge waste of resources. But the trial has accomplished some important things that we now take for granted. There will be no court verdict against Milosevic, but history's verdict — in large measure because of the trial — will be harsh."

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