Sunday, March 12, 2006

Milosevic carried his defiance to the end

Intelligent, ruthless and compulsively defiant, Slobodan Milosevic carried his momentous gambles to the brink of disaster and beyond during a decade of useless wars, vainly resisting the breakup of Yugoslavia.

When they landed him in The Hague, accused of masterminding ethnic cleansing in the Balkans in the 1990s, Milosevic snarled like a beast at bay. "That's your problem," he rasped at the judges vainly trying to persuade him to enter a plea.

The former Serbian and Yugoslav president dismissed the UN war crimes tribunal as a venue for "victor's justice." But that did not stop him jousting with witnesses and prosecutors.

It was rather like his first love, politics. Stubbornly conducting his own case he grew more and more ill. After frequent bouts of high blood pressure and heart problems, his doctors tried to have him moved to Moscow for treatment, but the Hague tribunal last month turned down the request.

On Saturday it said Milosevic, 64, had been found dead in his detention cell.


As his trial got under way in February 2002, Milosevic gazed disdainfully at spectators behind a wall of bullet-proof glass then settled back, dressed in boardroom sobriety, for what was to become a marathon of dogged argument in his own defense.

Square-jawed and white-haired, Milosevic tirelessly and verbosely protested his innocence. He never once referred to the court or the bench, but sniffed always of "the other side."

"All right, Mr May, I know, I know. You can rule this is Tuesday if that's what you like," the gravel-voiced grandfather once told Chief Justice Richard May, whom he outlived.

May endured interminable monologues by a Milosevic who was convinced of his legal finesse yet often seemed to outsmart himself by missing the obvious challenge. The chief justice stepped down in 2004, exhausted, and later died.


When Croatian President Stipe Mesic warned Milosevic in 1991 that he could be lynched by his own people, Mesic said: "He just sat back, puffed his cigar and said 'We'll see who'll be hanged."'

Ten years later, in detention and listening to Frank Sinatra ballads, he spoke regularly by telephone with the high-school sweetheart who became his powerful wife.

But his harsh, combative edge was never far below the surface. The trial was halted often by bouts of hypertension blamed on the heavy workload of conducting his own defense.

Milosevic had lined up a list of some 1,600 witnesses.

In March 2003, he reportedly ignored fellow Serb inmates who celebrated when assassins killed reformist prime minister Zoran Djindjic, who sent them to The Hague. That murder triggered a police dragnet and Milosevic's wife fled to exile in Russia.

Former Balkans envoy David Owen told the tribunal Milosevic was not "fundamentally racist" and no supremacist either. He even wore his nationalism pretty lightly, Owen said.

He failed to stop a bloodbath and his grand plan to carve a Greater Serbia from the ruins of Yugoslavia failed disastrously. Yet his brilliance as tactician and manipulator were admitted by those who dealt with him as "peacemaker" in a decade of war.

U.S. Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke grudgingly admired how he could wrong-foot opponents. But former NATO supreme commander General Wesley Clark ignored the clever moves and bombed Serbia for 11 weeks to end Milosevic's crackdown on Kosovo Albanians.

Until then in foreign eyes, Milosevic had been a Jekyll and Hyde character, with his useful, presentable side. But when he crossed the West over Kosovo he was consigned to the ranks of the "rogue-state" monsters.

A propaganda drive in 1998-99 made him the West's undisputed Public Enemy Number One. Yet unlike his successor Osama Bin Laden, he had never directly attacked Western interests.


In transcripts of wiretapped telephone conversations, Milosevic comes across as a run-of-the-mill despot, harassed by a spoiled family, dogged by incompetent yes-men, gratified by a polite call from Bill Clinton aboard Air Force One.

There are, as yet, no tapes to show his reaction as Serb guns strafed helpless civilians in Sarajevo or Kosovo villages. Whatever he thought, prosecutors and the victims they represent aimed to prove that his deeds led ruthlessly to war crimes.

He insists he acted to defend Serbs. Some believe all he ever really wanted was to keep power at any cost.

Milosevic put Serbia on the map in the worst way, giving his people the reputation of a ruthless bunch addicted to violent nationalism. Mastery of the political scene gave him a supreme grip on power for years under a veneer of democracy.

Kosovo was where he raised his colors in 1989, setting up apartheid-style rule to "protect" Serbs from Albanians.

In the Croatian and Bosnian wars from 1991 to 1995 he played the nationalist card, but left the dirty work to others like Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. When such links became too burdensome, he threw them to the lions in the West.

His most prominent role on the world stage was the Paris signing of the 1995 Dayton peace accord that ended the Bosnian war. It was a high point for Milosevic who, said one observer, "seemed to view himself as the equal of" major leaders.

But he misread the West, miscalculated how far he could go and ultimately misjudged his own people, losing his bid for an unprecedented second term in 2000 as Yugoslav president.

On October 5 that year, still resisting, he was brought down by a popular revolt in the streets. Six months later, after a 36-hour siege of his Belgrade villa, Milosevic surrendered and was taken to prison in the early hours of April 1.

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