John Laughland

A chat with Milosevic

John Laughland on a memorable encounter with the butcher of the Balkans at the UN detention centre in The Hague — and his claims of innocence to the last

Text settings

John Laughland on a memorable encounter with the butcher of the Balkans at the UN detention centre in The Hague — and his claims of innocence to the last

I was one of the last Western journalists to meet Slobodan Milosevic. It was early last year. A fierce wind was whipping the cold rain straight off the sea and through the ugly streets of Scheveningen as I unbundled from my pockets the various secret cameras and recording devices which I had in vain hidden there, and made my way through the security checks at the United Nations Detention Unit. A series of doors clanged open and shut and there was a friendly hubbub and a fug of cigarette smoke as stubbly men lounged, chatting in their long flat vowels as if it were an ordinary weekday morning in a Belgrade café. Holland dissolved behind me and I had arrived back in Yugoslavia.

The Hague tribunal is like Dover in Act V of King Lear — nearly all the main surviving protagonists of the Balkans wars are assembled in this improbable place. In a rare moment of postwar Yugoslav unity, the inmates once joined forces to protest about the tasteless food produced by the Dutch caterers, and so cevapcici are now delivered instead from a Croat restaurant in town. The colour inside is dark grey, a cross between a prison and an office. At the end of the corridor, I was shown into a room with a big window and a table covered in papers, books, dirty ashtrays, used plastic cups and open packets of Marlboro. Behind it sat Slobodan Milosevic, the butcher of the Balkans, wearing a zip-up grey cardigan and an open-necked shirt. He rose to greet me and smiled. ‘It is very nice to see you,’ he said, extending his hand. ‘Thank you for coming. Will you have some coffee?’

His demeanour was upbeat and his manner open and friendly. He spoke slowly and in a deep voice, occasionally with humour and contempt for his accusers. ‘The indictment against me is based on lies and contradiction,’ he said in his fluent if accented English. ‘It is a political trial, a show trial, designed to cover up the crimes committed against my country. I am accused when others are guilty. But we will fight. They cannot win. Freedom is a universal value. They have no evidence against me. That Geoffrey Nice [the prosecuting counsel] is stupid, very stupid. He is a king’s jester.’

This was the culmination of a long odyssey for me. Having once been a supporter of the standard party line on foreign policy, my conversion occurred on the night of my own father’s death, as I watched the hideous television images of bombers taking off from British bases and US aircraft carriers to attack Yugoslavia. I began to question the arguments used to justify the Kosovo war. I visited Belgrade during the bombing and went to sleep to the sound of air-raid sirens and explosions; I travelled to Kosovo numerous times and observed how the West had helped Mafia gangsters and drug-runners to become kings of the castle in this fetid and teeming province. Having spent much time behind the Iron Curtain as an active Cold Warrior, my own logic had now led me to become a dissident in the new world order, hence my visit to The Hague as a potential witness and my hour-long chat over a fag and a coffee with Slobo.

According to his closest assistant, Milosevic remained bullish to the end. In the final weeks, he complained about painful pressure behind his eyes, presumably the result of his deteriorating heart condition, but otherwise he was happy with the way the trial was proceeding. He was certainly bullish when I met him. He had marshalled an impressive array of defence witnesses who helped him rubbish the prosecution’s case — not that you would know it from most of the media, which rapidly lost interest once the initial attraction of the atrocity stories had worn off. In his conversation with me, he repeated the central planks of his defence. ‘There was never any plan to expel the Albanians from Kosovo,’ he said, ‘and no order to that effect was ever given. There was never any genocide in Kosovo. They have exhumed 2,000 bodies in total, of all different nationalities, and the causes of their deaths include Nato’s own bombs.’

On Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic was no less indignant. ‘The indictment is full of contradictions,’ he said. He picked up a sheaf of papers and pointed to bits he had underlined. ‘Look here. In paragraph 85 of the indictment, it says that from 8 October 1991 the conflict in Croatia was international in nature, not internal, yet in paragraph 110 it says that the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia existed as a sovereign state until 27 April 1992. These two statements cannot both be true. The indictment itself does not make sense.’ His apparently technical point is important because, broadly speaking, jurisdiction for the laws of war kicks in only when a conflict is international. ‘In any case,’ he went on, ‘the indictment also says that fighting broke out when the secessionist states declared independence from Yugoslavia. But am I supposed to have pursued a joint criminal enterprise by sponsoring armed secession from the state I wanted to see preserved? It is ridiculous.’

However self-serving these statements may appear to a sceptical reader, it remains the case that Slobodan Milosevic was not in charge of Yugoslavia when it was falling apart. The initial order for the Yugoslav National Army to fight the secessionists was given by the federal prime minister, Ante Markovic, an ethnic Croat, but the federal authority was weak and the army largely a law unto itself. It is also a fact that the Serbs in Serbia (where Milosevic was president) and the Serbs in Bosnia were living in different states; Milosevic broke with the Bosnian Serb leadership in 1993, having never controlled them in the first place, while what political influence he may have had does not stack up, in law, to criminal responsibility for their acts. Certainly, few Bosnian Serbs regard Milosevic as their master; when I visited a Bosnian Serb village near Sarajevo in 2001, in whose graveyard lay the bodies of hundreds of villagers killed by Muslims, the people looking after the church proudly showed me photographs of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic nestling among the icons, men who are accused of the worst atrocities in Bosnia’s civil war. But they dismissed Milosevic with contempt as a man who had betrayed them by helping to bring the fighting to an end at Dayton in 1995.

To be sure, Milosevic bore some political responsibility for the Yugoslav wars, but so did the other Yugoslav leaders and so does the West, which was intimately involved with the very minutiae of the conflict from the outset and which in many ways encouraged it. Our interference was especially damaging over Bosnia: with the backing of our troop presence there since 1992, we pressed on the accelerator and the brake simultaneously by incoherently insisting both that the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state must be dismantled and also that the multi-ethnic Bosnian state must be preserved. Our foreign policy therefore spun around in circles and we prolonged the killing for years.

Demonisation and denunciation are infectious viruses which can engulf large numbers of people very quickly. They are parasites on one of the core human vices, pride, because they give the denunciator an intoxicating sense of superiority over the object of his attack. Political trials, as Stalin discovered, tap into this. Milosevic is the seventh defendant to die in The Hague’s tender care, following a trial in which almost every established precept of jurisprudence and international law has been violated by the judges there. If the legacy of his death is the de facto legitimisation of the gross abuses committed in the name of international justice by this kangaroo court, then all our liberties are at risk.