Exonerating Milošević: A Futile, Destructive Cause of Global “Anti-Imperialists”


followers of balkans strongman slobodan milosevic kiss his portrait moments after news broke of his death, belgrade, serbia, 2006.

The chorus of familiar voices from the “anti-imperialist” spectrum of the international public discourse proclaiming that Slobodan Milošević has been “exonerated by the ICTY” has recently been joined by John Pilger, an award-winning journalist and film maker, known for his fierce criticism of American and British foreign policies.

In his piece titled “Provoking nuclear war with media” Pilger writes that “The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague has quietly cleared the late Serbian president, Slobodan Milošević, of war crimes committed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, including the massacre at Srebrenica.” The rest of his text is a mix of outlandish accusations and often contradictory claims which paint Milošević as an innocent victim of the western “liberal warmongering establishment,” whose demise supposedly cleared the path for similar demonization of others like Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin.

Pilger’s article echoes a similar piece penned for Russia Today by Neil Clark, adequately titled “Milošević exonerated, as the NATO machine marches on”. In it, Clark also claims that Milošević was exonerated and laments that “one of the most demonized figures of the modern era was innocent of the most heinous crimes he was accused of, really should have made headlines across the world. But it hasn‘t.” As the title indicates, the premise is identical to that of Pilger’s article: “In order to punish Milošević and to warn others of the consequences if they dared to oppose US power, history had to be re-written.”

Both Pilger and Clark base their claims on the article authored by Andy Wilcoxson, published on a website with a telling domain of http://www.slobodan-milosevic.org and the following statement of philosophy: “Slobodan Milošević was not just a man. He is the conduit through whom the Serbian nation is collectively accused of the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia. No defence of the Serbian people is possible without first refuting the allegations against Slobodan Milosevic.” The website is the contemporary iteration of the “Slobodan Milošević Freedom Center,” a project established to support Milosevic’s defense in The Hague, with Andy Wilcoxson named as the project’s reporter and researcher. In addition, Wilcoxson is an associate of “Srebrenica Historical Project,” an undertaking funded by the government of Republika Srpska and focused solely on denial of genocide committed in and around Srebrenica by Serb forces.

Usually, no person with a degree of respect for her/his time and energy would engage in refuting these baseless constructions coming from sources of such questionable credibility. This is not the first time that crimes committed by Milošević and his co-perpetrators in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Croatia are subject to denial by international circles, which at different times included a truly colorful array of characters. From the famous “International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic” headed by Michael Parenti and Ramsey Clark, to the likes of Noam Chomsky and Harold Pinter. Facts always seemed to matter less to this group than a misguided notion that Milošević was some sort of a socialist hero who stood up to the evil imperialism of America and the “NATO war machine.” Often driven by the motto of “America’s enemy must be my friend,” such interventions ignored or outright denied inconvenient facts about systemic crimes orchestrated by Milošević, his killings of political opponents in Serbia or plunder of enormous amounts from the state coffers. But such is the unfortunate state of the “international left” that engaging in polemics about such nonsensical assertions never drew more than a sigh of resignation on my part.

However, these latest attempts at revisionism come at a particularly bad moment for the place I still call home, where tensions are on the rise again amidst geopolitical tremors, a worrying surge in nationalist rhetoric in Serbia and Croatia and the continued political upheaval in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is for two reasons that I decided to respond: a) Russia Today and John Pilger command large audiences that deserve to be aware of the facts behind the claims of Milosevic’s “exoneration,” and b) their revisionism has fallen on extremely fertile ground in Serbia and Republika Srpska with a genuinely destructive effect.

The facts

So, let’s look at the facts. In the piece quoted by Clark and Pilger, Andy Wilcoxson extracts several paragraphs of the recent 2590-page ICTY verdict against Radovan Karadžić, the leader of Bosnian Serbs who was sentenced to 40 years for genocide and crimes against humanity committed by Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The “smoking gun” to his claim of Milošević’s innocence for crimes committed in Bosnia, Wilcoxson finds in the paragraph 3460 of the verdict, which states that although Milošević shared political goals with Karadžić and supplied him with weapons, soldiers and other assistance, “the Chamber is not satisfied that there was sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Milošević agreed with the common plan.” Common plan being the joint criminal enterprise to exterminate Bosnian Muslims and Croats from the territory claimed by the Serbs. Wilcoxson then strings together several other mentions of Milošević in the verdict to construct his “ruling of innocence” the ICTY supposedly delivered.

Let’s leave aside the language in the paragraph that clearly speaks of Milošević’s involvement, which Wilcoxson chooses to ignore, and focus on this supposed “exoneration”.

The key element of the quoted sentence is the phrase “in this case.” Namely, the evidence presented in this trial was directed at securing the conviction of Radovan Karadžić, not that of Slobodan Milošević. The judges considered evidence related to Slobodan Milošević specifically in the context of Karadžić’s responsibility and the prosecution’s burden to prove Karadžić’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt, while considering the complex context of the joint criminal enterprise. To simplify, in this case the prosecution had no burden (nor seemingly the intention) to concern itself with judges’ interpretation of Milošević’s responsibility for crimes committed in Bosnia. To further simplify, the paragraph Wilcoxson is quoting means nothing (0) in determination of Milosevic’s supposed innocence.

On the contrary, if findings of trial chambers in other cases were to be the standard by which to measure Milošević’s criminal responsibility, his trial would have been completely unnecessary and he would have been found guilty on all charges for crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. For judges found in numerous other cases – from that of Dusan Tadic, the first case tried by the ICTY, to at least 12 others, including that of Milan Martic (Croatia) and Šainović et al (Kosovo) – that there was sufficient evidence to believe Milošević was indeed a member of the joint criminal enterprise which used genocide and crimes against humanity to remove Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Albanians from territories claimed by the Serbs, and in fact its leader. For a detailed analysis of this evidence read the excellent book edited by Timothy William Waters “The Milošević Trial: An Autopsy.” If you don’t have the time to read the entire book, read the chapter by Christian Axboe Nielsen titled “Can We Salvage a History of the Former Yugoslav Conflicts from the Milošević Trial?” And if you don’t at all have time for reading, watch this video in which commanders of the notorious “Red Berets” unit of Serbian State Security Services report to Milošević on their operations carried out in Bosnia and Croatia from 1991 to 1995.

To illustrate how substantive such “related findings” can be (as opposed to the glancing mention in the Karadžić judgment), and since, among other things, Pilger in his text claims that there were no mass graves found of Kosovo Albanians killed by forces under Milošević’s control, perhaps this paragraph from Nielsen’s chapter is indicative: “As regarded the crimes committed in Kosovo, the Trial Chamber found that Milošević was among those who actively conducted a “clandestine operation involving the exhumation of over 700 bodies originally buried in Kosovo and their transportation to Serbia proper [which] took place during the NATO bombing.” Moreover, the Trial Chamber concluded that Milošević “knew that the great majority of the corpses moved were victims of crime and civilians, including women and children.” Throughout the MOS judgment, particularly in volume three, the impression is given that the Trial Chamber had concluded that Milošević was principally responsible for the crimes committed by the Yugoslav and Serbian forces in Kosovo, and that the criminal liability of the defendants depended to a very considerable extent on their proximity to, and relationship with, Milošević.”

Illustrative yes, but does this mean that Milošević was found guilty of these crimes by the ICTY? No. Just as that mention in the Karadžić judgment, taken out of the context and the purpose of the presented evidence, certainly does not mean he was “exonerated by the ICTY” for his crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Milošević died before the verdict was rendered and we have no legal document that would definitively assert the degree of his criminal responsibility. But it is important to note that there was in fact a moment in which judges evaluated the evidence presented against him by the prosecution.

This happened after the prosecutors presented their case and lawyers acting as support to Milošević’s defense submitted a motion that he be acquitted claiming that prosecution had not proven any of the charges. Judges took several months to review the evidence, and clearly determined that not only had there been sufficient evidence to convict Milošević, but to actually convict him on all charges. This is the closest we got to any determination of Milošević’s criminal responsibility. And this is what the judges in his case determined on the basis of evidence presented in relation to his role in Bosnia and Herzegovina:

“(1) there existed a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, the aim and intention of which was to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group, and that its participants committed genocide in Brcko, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Kljuc and Bosanski Novi;

(2) the Accused (Milošević) was a participant in that joint criminal enterprise, Judge Kwon dissenting;

(3) the Accused was a participant in a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, to commit other crimes than genocide and it was reasonably foreseeable to him that, as a consequence of the commission of those crimes, genocide of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group would be committed by other participants in the joint criminal enterprise, and it was committed;

(4) the Accused aided and abetted or was complicit in the commission of the crime of genocide in that he had knowledge of the joint criminal enterprise, and that he gave its participants substantial assistance, being aware that its aim and intention was the destruction of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as group;

(5) the Accused was a superior to certain persons whom he knew or had reason to know were about to commit or had committed genocide of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group, and he failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the commission of genocide, or punish the perpetrators thereof.”

The fallout

These are the facts. Facts that are still being firmly rejected by the Serbian government, whose foreign minister Ivica Dačić (wartime spokesperson of Milošević’s Socialist Party) was the first to embrace this latest wave of revisionism sparked off by Clark’s piece in RT.

“Milošević, Jugoslavija and Serbia are innocent. The lies about genocide and war crimes which have served as the basis to punish Serbia and Serbian people have been destroyed,” declared Dačić in a press conference convened after Clark’s piece appeared on RT. “Western politicians don’t want this to be spoken or written about, but we will not be silent!” He was not the only minister to afford this revisionist nonsense a government’s seal of approval. “The Hague Tribunal was given the mandate to reconcile us, to bring us all to the same plain, but it didn’t succeed. When such a tribunal admits that Milošević was not part of the joint criminal enterprise, than it is clear that Serbia pursued the right policies,” said Aleksandar Vulin, Minister of Labor Affairs and a very close ally to his party boss, the current PM Aleksandar Vučić. Not to be outdone, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić stated that a monument to Milošević should serve to further unify the Serbs.

These are not statements of unhinged ultra-nationalists which are usually dismissed as marginal and isolated. These are words of government ministers in a country gripped by rising nationalist rhetoric very reminiscent of the early 1990s, in which neighbors of other ethnicities are once again being portrayed as enemies. The snowball of revisionist rhetoric grew larger and louder fueled by Serbian media, reactions ensued from Bosnia and Croatia, and the public discourse, already poisoned by inflammatory language used by politicians at various commemorations and mass burials this summer, degenerated into de-humanization of the other seen in the years preceding the war of the 1990s. We are again getting used to seeing derogatory terms such as “ustaša, četnik and Turk” used by the media and politicians to refer to Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims.

The ICTY prosecutor Serge Brammertz describes the trend: “In the past few years, the situation has greatly deteriorated, with the return of rhetoric and policies not seen since the outbreak of the conflicts. Some government officials throughout the region regularly misrepresent and disregard the judicial and historical record. The denial of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes is almost commonplace today. Convicted war criminals are being publicly lauded as heroes.” Srdjan Šušnica, a political analyst from Banja Luka, goes a step further and focuses specifically on Serbia: “In Serbia currently there is no policy of coming to terms with the past and accepting the political responsibility for the war, crimes and genocide in Bosnia and Croatia, but exactly the opposite: there is amnesia and systematic whitewashing of the role of the Serbian state, its media, its military and intelligence forces in the instigation of inter-ethnic hatred, the planning and execution of crimes, of genocide and extermination of other peoples in Bosnia and Croatia. There is refusal to acknowledge that military, security and almost all socio-political capacities of the Serbian state were used in the aggression against citizen of other republics.”

More than a year ago I wrote in this magazine about the intensifying war for the dominant narrative of the past, for the ‘truth’ as the foundation of political projects largely rooted in wartime goals of ethnic separation and dominance, which is bound to have a lasting impact on the region’s stability. Although far from optimistic while writing that piece, I still could not have envisaged we’d be facing a complete revision of the known facts about the role of Slobodan Milošević a year down the line.

One of the most poisonous legacies of Slobodan Milošević and his adjutants is precisely the de-humanization of the other that he introduced as a strategy in achieving the desired separation of peoples and the carving out of ethnically clean territory for the new Serbian state. Yesterday’s neighbors became “historic enemies,” vermin, a problem that needed solving. The unimaginable – mass murder, humiliation and persecution – became a new normal of Milošević’s project. We still struggle to dismantle this normal of de-humanization and hatred, but, as it is evident, we are regressing and there are no clear signs we can expect anything but more of the same poison from the political leaders. At least we could do without fuel being added to the fire by irresponsible, destructive revisionism exhibited in Pilger’s and Clark’s texts.

p.s. I will never cease being amazed at Milošević’s portrayal in these texts as some sort of a socialist visionary who was demonized by the West for refusing to give up on socialist ideas in the face of their neoliberal onslaught. On the contrary, Milošević was a pragmatist who embraced the most radical forms of “free enterprise” to enrich himself and his cronies; and a partner of the West which has in the aftermath of the Dayton Peace Agreement seen him as a “factor of stability”, even at the time when the ICTY demonstrated it had evidence of his crimes in Bosnia. Milošević was no socialist. As opposed to more than 3000 workers and peasants and their children from my hometown of Prijedor, who were true champions of the socialist idea. But that did not save them from Milošević’s war machine.

(originally published on The Balkanist)

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