By Srdja Trifkovic | On October 5, 2000, in a coup by the security forces staged against the backdrop of massive street protests, Slobodan Milosevic was removed from power in Serbia. A decade later, the author says in ChroniclesOnline, many of those who cheered his downfall at that time have nothing to celebrate.
In the run-up to Peti oktobar many of us believed that a change of regime—any change—was essential to Serbia’s recovery from six decades of war, bloodshed, communist and neo-communist nightmare. We were wrong.
It is futile to debate whether Milosevic’s dead-end regime was “better” or “worse” than what Serbia has today with its “pro-Western” rulers. It is like discussing whether pancreatic cancer is preferable to congestive heart failure. Let me be specific.
On October 10 the first “gay pride parade” will be staged in Belgrade. The government has been promoting the event as yet another proof that Serbia is fit to join the European Union, that is has overcome the legacy of its dark, intolerant past. It has threatened the opponents of the spectacle with violence and judicial consequences. It has earned praise from all the right quarters in Brussels, Washington and the NGO sector for its “public commitment to … thwart any attempt to stop the march from proceeding to its conclusion.” There will be five thousand policemen in full riot gear marching with a few hundred “LBGT” activists on the day.
This is pure anarchotyranny in action. The current government in Belgrade is quite powerless to protect its citizens from harassment in the NATO-occupied province of Kosovo. It is powerless to prevent young jihadists from pelting with stones tourist buses from non-Muslim areas in the majority-Muslim region of Novi Pazar—not in Kosovo, mind you, but in “Serbia Proper.” It is powerless to stop rampant corruption by its own functionaries and politically associated cronies. It is powerless to halt open war-mongering by Islamic extremists such as Mufti Zukorlic in the Sandzak region in the south, or advocacy of ethnic separatism by Hungarian activists in the north. It is powerless to evict the Gypsy criminal underclass from usurping prime real estate in the nation’s capital. It is unable and unwilling to arrest and prosecute mafia bosses, privatization tycoons and foreign agents in its own ranks.
At the same time, the regime of Serbia’s Euro-Integrators led by President Boris Tadic is brutally efficient in clamping down on those “extremists” who dare protest the promotion of sodomy and who dislike the imposition of psychopathological “norms” imposed by the regime’s foreign mentors. It is good at normalizing criminality and criminalizing normality. Serbia will never enter the EU, of course, and it will never be absolved of its alleged sins harking back to the Milosevic era, but in terms of anarchotyrannical shackles it is eminently “Western” already.
In foreign affairs Serbia’s position is even worse. It is incomparably worse than a decade ago. On September 10, at the UN General Assembly, Serbia abruptly surrendered its claim to Kosovo. As Diana Johnstone explained in Counterpunch, the government in Belgrade tried to pretend that this surrender was a “compromise”; but for Serbia, it was all give and no take:
In its dealings with the Western powers, recent Serbian diplomacy has displayed all the perspicacity of a rabbit cornered by a rattlesnake. After some helpless spasms of movement, the poor creature lets itself be eaten. The surrender has been implicit all along in President Boris Tadic’s two proclaimed foreign policy goals: deny Kosovo’s independence and join the European Union. These two were always mutually incompatible. Recognition of Kosovo’s independence is clearly one of the many conditions—and the most crucial—set by the Euroclub for Serbia to be considered for membership.
But “denying Kosovo’s independence” had never been a genuine goal. For some years now Tadic and his cohorts have been looking for a way to capitulate on Kosovo while pretending not to. The formula that led to the surrender at the UN last month was simple: place all diplomatic eggs in one basket—that of the International Court of Justice—and refrain from using any other tools at Serbia’s disposal. Last July 22 the ICJ performed on cue, declaring that Kosovo’s UDI was not illegal.
That is exactly what Tadic’s regime and its foreign handlers had expected, and wanted. It should be noted that the government of Serbia asked the ICJ only to assess the legality of Kosovo’s declaration of independence, not to consider more widely Kosovo’s right to unilateral secession from Serbia or to assess the consequences of the adoption of the UDI, namely whether Kosovo is a state, or the legitimacy of its recognition by other countries. As a former British diplomat who knows the Balkans well has noted, international law takes no notice of declarations of independence, unilateral or otherwise, as such; they are irrelevant.
The ICJ advisory opinion was deeply flawed and non-binding, but the government in Belgrade was given a perfect alibi for doing what it had intended to do all along. It could not be otherwise. Ever since the appointment of Vuk Jeremić as Serbia’s foreign minister in 2007, this outcome could be predicted with near-certainty.
As President Boris Tadić’s chief foreign policy advisor, Jeremić came to Washington on 18 May 2005 to testify in Congress on why Kosovo should stay within Serbia. In his subsequent off-the-record conversations, however, he assured his hosts that the task was really to sugar-coat the bitter Kosovo pill that Serbia would have to swallow anyway.
Two years later another advisor to Tadić, Dr. Leon Kojen, resigned in a blaze of publicity after Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer declared, on April 13, 2007, “We are working with Boris Tadić and his people to find a way to implement the essence of the Ahtisaari plan.” Tout Belgrade knew that “Tadić’s people” meant—Vuk Jeremić. Gusenbauer’s indiscretion amounted to the revelation that Serbia’s head of state and his closest advisor were engaged in secret negotiations aimed at facilitating the detachment of Kosovo from Serbia—which, of course, was “the essence of the Ahtisaari plan.” Jeremić’s quest for sugar-coating of the bitter pill was evidently in full swing even before he came to the helm of Serbia’s diplomacy.
In the intervening three years Tadić and Jeremić had continued to pursue a dual-track policy on Kosovo. The decisive fruit of that policy was their disastrous decision to accept the European Union’s Eulex Mission in Kosovo in December 2008. Acting under an entirely self-created mandate, the EU thus managed to insert its mission, based explicitly on the provisions of the Ahtissari Plan, into Kosovo with Belgrade’s agreement.
That was the moment of Belgrade’s true capitulation. Everything else – the ICJ ruling and the General Assembly spectacle included—is just a choreographed farce …
That farce will continue with the forthcoming visit by Hillary Clinton to Belgrade. Aiding and abetting Muslim designs in the Balkans, in the hope that this will earn some credit for the United States in the Islamic world, has been a major motive of her husband’s and her own policy in the region for almost two decades now. It has never yielded any dividends, of course, but repeated failure only prompts the architects of the policy to redouble their efforts. Washington will be equally supportive of an independent Sanjak that would connect Kosovo with Bosnia, or of any other putative Islamistan, from western Macedonia to southern Bulgaria (“Eastern Rumelia”) to the Caucasus. The late Tom Lantos must be smiling approvingly wherever he is now, having called, three years ago, on “Jihadists of all color and hue” to take note of “yet another example that the United States leads the way for the creation of a predominantly Muslim country in the very heart of Europe.”
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A DECADE after his downfall Milosevic appears almost decent in comparison to his current successors. He was guilty of many sins and errors, but they were a matter between him and his people. The Hague was the wrong court designed to find him guilty of the wrong crimes.
First of all, Milosevic was not a “Serbian nationalist.” Until 1987 he was an unremarkable apparatchik. His solid Communist Party credentials—he joined the League of Communists as a high school senior in 1959—were essential to his professional advance. His name remained relatively unknown outside the ranks of the nomenklatura. Then came the turning point. As president of the League of Communists of Serbia, in April 1987 Milosevic traveled to the town of Kosovo Polje, in the restive southern Serbian province of Kosovo, to quell the protests by local Serbs unhappy with the lack of support they were getting from Belgrade in the face of ethnic Albanian pressure. When the police started dispersing the crowd using batons, Milosevic stopped them and uttered the words that were to change his life and that of a nation. “No one is allowed to beat you people; no one will ever hit you again,” he told the cheering crowd.
Used to two generations of Serbian Communist leaders subservient to Tito and reluctant to advance their republic’s interests lest they be accused of “greater Serbian nationalism,” ordinary Serbs responded with enthusiasm. The word of a new kind of leader spread like wildfire. Milosevic’s populism worked wonders at first, enabling him to eliminate all political opponents within the Party leadership of Serbia in 1987. A huge rally in Belgrade’s Confluence Park (1988) and in Kosovo to mark the 600th anniversary of the historic battle (1989), reflected a degree of genuine popularity that he enjoyed in Serbia, Montenegro, and Serbian-inhabited part of Bosnia and Croatia in the late 1980s. But far from proclaiming an agenda for expansion, as later alleged by his enemies, his Kosovo speech was full of old ideological clichés and “Yugoslav” platitudes.
The precise nature of his long term agenda was never stated, however, because it had never been defined. He was able to gain followers from widely different camps, including hard-line Party loyalists as well as anti-Communist nationalists, because they all tended to project their hopes, aspirations and fears onto Milosevic—even though those hopes and aspirations were often mutually incompatible.
The key issue was the constitutional framework within which the Serbs should seek their future. They were unhappy by Tito’s arrangements that kept them divided into five units in the old Yugoslav federation. Milosevic wanted to redefine the nature of that federation, rather than abolish it. Then and throughout his life he was a “Yugoslav” rather than a “Greater Serb.” In addition he was so deeply steeped in the Communist legacy of his formative years (and so utterly unable to resist the pressure from his doctrinaire wife) that even after the fall of the Berlin Wall he kept the old insignia with the red star, together with the leadership structure and mindset of the old, Titoist order.
The tensions of this period could have been resolved by a clear strategy once the war broke out, first in Croatia (summer 1991) and then in Bosnia (spring 1992). This did not happen. In the key phase of Milosevic’s career, from mid-1990 until October 5, 2000, a cynically manipulative Mr. Hyde had finally prevailed over the putative national leader Dr. Jekyll. As the fighting raged around Vukovar and Dubrovnik, he made countless contradictory statements about its nature, always stressing that “Serbia is not at war” and thereby implicitly recognizing the validity of Tito’s internal boundaries. Very much against the prevailing trend of Western commentary, I opined at that time that “Milosevic is cynically exploiting the nationalist awakening to perpetuate Communist rule and his own power in the eastern half of Yugoslavia.” (U.S. News & World Report, 18 June 1990), that for Serb patriots “trusting Milosevic is like giving a blood bank to Count Dracula” (The Times of London, 23 November 1995).
Milosevic’s diplomatic ineptitude and his chronic inability to grasp the importance of lobbying and public relations in Washington and other Western capitals had enabled the secessionists to have a free run of the media scene with the simplistic notion that “the butcher of the Balkans” was overwhelmingly, even exclusively guilty of all the horrors that had befallen the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, far from seeking the completion of a “Greater Serbian” project while he had the military wherewithal to do so (1991-1995), Milosevic attempted to fortify his domestic position in Belgrade by trading in the Western Serbs (Krajina, Bosnia) for Western benevolence. It worked for a while. “The Serbian leader continues to be a necessary diplomatic partner,” The New York Times opined in November 1996, a year after the Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia thanks to Milosevic’s pressure on the Bosnian-Serb leadership. His status as a permanent fixture in the Balkan landscape seemed secure.
It all changed with the escalation of the crisis in Kosovo, however. His belated refusal to sign on yet another dotted line at Rambouillet paved the way for NATO’s illegal bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999. For one last time the Serbs rallied under the leader many of them no longer trusted, aware that the alternative was to accept the country’s open-ended carve-up. Yet Milosevic saved Clinton’s skin by capitulating in June of that year, and letting NATO occupy Kosovo just as the bombing campaign was running out of steam and the Alliance was riddled by discord over what to do next.
The ensuing mass exodus of Kosovo’s quarter-million Serbs and the torching of their homes and churches by the KLA terrorists did not prevent Milosevic from pretending that his superior statesmanship, embodied in the unenforceable UN Security Council Resolution 1244, had saved the country’s integrity. The ensuing reconstruction effort in Serbia was used as a propaganda ploy to improve the rating of his own socialist party of Serbia and his wife Mirjana Markovic’s minuscule “Yugoslav United Left” (JUL).
For many Serbs this was the final straw. Refusing to recognize the change of mood, in mid-2000 Milosevic followed his wife’s advice and called a snap election, hoping to secure his position for another four years. Unexpectedly he was unable to beat his chief challenger Vojislav Kostunica in the first round, and succumbed to a wave of popular protest when he tried to deny Kostunica’s victory in the closely contested runoff.
His downfall on October 5, 2000, would not have been possible if the military and the security services had not abandoned him. There had been just too many defeats and too many wasted opportunities over the previous decade and a half for the security chiefs to continue trusting Milosevic implicitly. Their refusal to fire on the crowds—as his half-demented wife allegedly demanded on that day—sealed Milosevic’s fate. After five months’ isolation in his villa he was arrested and taken to Belgrade’s central prison. On June 28, 2001, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic arranged for his transfer to The Hague Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, in violation of Serbia’s laws and constitution. It was the first major self-inflicted humiliation by Serbia under its new, “democratic” management. The process is going on, unabated, nine years later.
Ten years after Milosevic’s downfall, “the record of history” is yet to be articulated on the tragedy of ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It will come, probably too late to alter the unjust and untenable temporary outcome of the wars of Yugoslav succession. Sadly, those who had collectively invented a fictional character bearing the name “Slobodan Milosevic” in the 1990s are using the tenth anniversary of his downfall as a welcome opportunity to put the finishing touches on the caricature, and to demand from his successors further surrenders and new humiliations as evidence that Serbia has overcome his legacy. Vae victis!
Dr. Trifkovic is the Foreign Affairs Editor of the CHRONICLES: A Magazine of American Culture