Milosevic Trial

Milosevic trial The Hague
A salesman adjusts the volume on a TV displayed in a Belgrade store to watch the live broadcast of Slobodan Milosevic's trial at The Hague Tribunal, Feb. 27, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

After more than a decade of division, the people of the former Yugoslavia got together on Feb. 12 around a single event: The beginning of Slobodan Milosevic’s war-crimes trial in The Hague. Throughout the countries created by Yugoslavia’s breakup, people were glued to live TV broadcasts of the trial’s opening sessions, eager to see in the dock the man who most of them have blamed for untold numbers of destroyed lives, hundreds of thousands of deaths, and millions of refugees.

The front pages of almost all daily and weekly newspapers in the region were inundated by reports from The Hague, detailed accounts of the prosecution’s accusations, and the defendant’s first moves. However, a month after the trial began, it was common for most publications to refrain from commentary on the proceedings.

Commentaries were notably absent from the influential Serbian daily Politika, the oldest daily in both the former and current Yugoslavia. Once considered a mouthpiece for the Milosevic regime, the traditionally pro-government Politika had no editorial on the opening of the trial, despite extensive, detailed coverage of the proceedings.

mass-circulation, nationalist, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
independent, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
independent political weekly, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
independent weekly magazine, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
Glas Javnosti
nationalist, Belgrade, Yugoslavia
independent, Sarajevo, Bosnia
Feral Tribune
independent weekly, Split, Croatia
independent, Ljubljana, Slovenia

In contrast, Danas, one of Serbia’s most vocal independent publications, was clear: “Slobodan Milosevic was the key figure of the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. For 10 years he and his allies were masters of the destinies of entire nations, leaving chaos in their wake. The result of their ‘joint criminal conspiracy’ can be seen in the hundreds of thousands of killed, mutilated, and displaced people, in destroyed towns and villages, and in the pain and suffering. Not even the most effective defense [by Milosevic] could annul such irreparable consequences” (Feb. 19).

Whatever their political perspective, Serbia’s print media share the view that Milosevic—who has refused to engage lawyers and defends himself before the court—is better prepared than the prosecution and seems superior in the courtroom. As Ljiljana Smajlovic wrote in Nin (Feb. 21), Milosevic, “a graduate lawyer, has just discovered a talent for cross-examination.” Another prominent independent weekly, Vreme, said (March 7) that “Every day in the courtroom it was more obvious that the prosecution failed to prepare the case sufficiently, relying too much on Milosevic’s possible depression and on unreliable witnesses. In addition, the defendant quite skillfully managed to push into the background the story about crimes he has been accused of [to focus] the story on crimes committed by NATO and the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla movement).”

The nationalist Glas Javnosti (Feb. 23) went even further, using as its headline, “Milosevic v. Tribunal: 1:0.” “The indisputable fact is that Milosevic took a certain initiative by his self-confident appearance and manner as well as by his cross-examination of witnesses,” Ljiljana Staletovic wrote. “In such a situation, it could not be perceived how the prosecutors will show a link between alleged massacres and deportations and decisions made by Milosevic,” Staletovic concluded.

Despite apparently widespread popular interest in the trial, print media in Bosnia and Croatia limited their coverage mainly to news wire reports. In a rare commentary, the independent Bosnian Oslobodjenje (March 1) shared the impression of colleagues in the Serbian press about Milosevic’s superior-ity in cross-examination: “His advantage is in high motivation. Until now he has made ruthless decisions about others’ destiny; it is not to be expected that he would be more considerate when defending his own skin.” Observing the former strongman’s courtroom tactics, author Hamza Baksic concluded: “Milosevic determined to reconstruct and defend before the tribunal and to affirm before the Serbian and world public the policy he had led.”

Marinko Culic, writing in Croatia’s Feral Tribune (March 11), noted that Milosevic, who “looked like a human wreck after losing power and his extradition to The Hague,” reverted to top form as the trial began. “It is not a mystery at all. Milosevic simply refused to defend himself, but instead attacked the Hague tribunal where it was most vulnerable: that is, in never acknowledging the massive civilian suffering during the NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia,” Culic wrote. “On the one hand, he presents himself as a victim of Western conspiracy. On the other hand, he presents himself as a fighter against ethnic Albanian militants, similar to the United States against Taliban extremists in Afghanistan,” Culic observed.

Macedonia and Slovenia, the two former Yugoslav republics least harmed by Milosevic’s devastating policies, understandably showed the least interest in the trial, covering only its first few days and taking a more dispassionate tone in their occasional analyses.

For example, Delo, Slovenia’s mass-circulation newspaper, challenged the “selectivity” of international justice in The Hague in a Feb. 13 editorial: “The dark side of the affair is that many war crimes, perhaps even genocide, have happened in recent years, but obviously no one is going to answer for them.” Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin are “certainly not going to sit in the dock because of Chechnya, not in a million years will Bill Clinton answer for the NATO attacks on Yugoslavia, nor George W. Bush for the bombing of civilians as part of the war against terrorism,” the Delo editorial asserted.

Delo’s editors stressed that there was a bright side to Milosevic’s trial, however: “the knowledge that those with the dirtiest hands in the collective awareness of the Balkan nations will not escape justice because of the top position they held during the war.”