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History can't absolve Serbia's great demon demagogue



Rationalising devilish deeds of history is often mistaken for favourable judgment. The Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor was considered more than an eccentric in suggesting that Adolf Hitler had been an orthodox, daring statesman, rather than a mass murdering psychotic of inimitable fibre pursuing a common plan of domination.

Slobodan MilosevicParticularly riling were remarks that had the effect of taking the sting of singularity out of Hitler's character. For, 'in principle and doctrine, Hitler was no more wicked and unscrupulous than many a contemporary statesman', though he did outdo 'them all' in the department of commissioned wickedness.

The issue sheds light on that perennial historical desire to seek a demon that will invariably make the accuser look better, be it as victim, or as morally superior agent. Such a figure supplies the suitable demonology of the moment, a convenient successor figure deemed the 'next Hitler'.

In the savage wars of the Balkans during the 1990s, the identification of good sides over bad, noble warriors over ignoble ones, meant evil had to be singularised, culprits found to galvanise resistance. Identifying another mass murdering dictator was fundamental to the cause. One such figure was Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic.

How far could Miloševic be implicated in the atrocities of those wars? He was the bogeyman supremo of the 1990s, the great demon demagogue. In duly being surrendered to The Hague to face the music of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, questions about his role in the civil wars was put to the bench. But the judges never reached a verdict.

Miloševic fought with dogmatic, relentless conviction. But ailing health took its toll, and he died in a Hague cell in March 2006. That result had the effect of suspending arguments about responsibility from any legal scrutiny. Historical speculators moved in, capitalising on the real estate of memory.

Earlier this month, British journalist Neil Clark decided to add to the speculation by suggesting Miloševic had been exonerated for his role in war crimes and crimes against humanity, notably in Bosnia. He drew upon Andy Wilcoxson's assertions, based on the 24 March Karadžic judgment from the ICTY.

'The ICTY's conclusion,' went Clark, 'that one of the most demonised figures of the modern era was innocent of the most heinous crimes he was accused of, really should have made headlines across the world.' Even the ICTY itself 'buried' that exoneration 'deep in its 2590 page verdict in the trial of Bosnian Serbia leader Radovan Karadžic who was convicted in March of the genocide (at Srebrenica), war crimes and crimes against humanity'.


"Miloševic's fingers may not have been solely bloodied in directing operations being conducted by Bosnian Serbs, but his efforts to shore up his hold on power in Belgrade were ruinous to Serbia proper."


This 'burying' took the form of the view of the trial judgment, that 'there was no sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Miloševic agreed with the common plan', though he did provide 'assistance in the form of personnel, provisions and arms to Bosnian Serbs during the conflict'. That common plan entailed the commission of atrocities against non-Serbs, notably Bosniaks. But the judgment noted the widening gap between Belgrade and Bosnian Serbs during the course of the war. In March 1992, 'there was apparent discord between [Karadžic] and Miloševic in meetings with international representatives, during which Miloševic and other Serbian leaders openly criticised Bosnian Serb leaders of committing 'crimes against humanity' and 'ethnic cleansing' and the war for their own purposes'.

While such observations go towards adding depth to understanding the lack of such a common plan, and even disagreement between Serb groups and factions, it hardly points to a lack of responsibility. As such, the ICTY judgment remained specific to Karadžic, not Miloševic, with side comments always being a case of dicta. This prompted Serbian journalist Gordana Knezevic to charge those making such statements of claimed exoneration as irresponsible apologists.

Serbia's Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, can be counted among them. Along with his colleague, Milutin Mrkonjic, both have gone so far as to proclaim a total absence of guilt for Miloševic, while insisting on awarding him 'a monument in Belgrade' and a street bearing his name.

Miloševic's fingers may not have been solely bloodied in directing operations being conducted by Bosnian Serbs, but his efforts to shore up his hold on power in Belgrade were ruinous to Serbia proper. Various individuals who took to the barricades in Serbia against him, such as writer Slavko Curuvija, perished. Ivan Stambolic was slain in August 2000 having promised to oppose Miloševic at the ballot box.

Miloševic, while initially sympathetic to a greater Serbia project, could only be a fallback, self-interested consolidator. The Bosnian Serb leadership proved to be liabilities rather than allies, but an element of ethical complicity always remained. Nationalism as condition and disease had not only taken hold of the host that was Yugoslavia, but in due cause killed it. For such reasons, Miloševic could never be deemed innocent, or exonerated, by the wages of history. Not even the ICTY could do that.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Slobodan Milošević, Servia, Yugoslavia



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Existing comments

I think that history will change the current prevailing opinion of Slobodan Miloševic. We must remember that he was "guilty" even before the war started, because he opposed the most likely outcome of the Titoist project which was to be the splitting of Yugoslavia into EIGHT states. In the end Miloševic achieved the splitting into SEVEN states because he effectively kept Vojvodina within Serbia, but Kosovo is de facto lost. The Serbs from Bosnia and Herzegovina achieved to create their own autonomous territory the "mini-state" Republika srpska. Miloševic was surely only one of the factors in this process. The facts that Slovenia was the first to use force against the constitutional army. The Croats were the second, and the "Bosnians" were the third. Therefore Serbs started to use arms only once the Yugoslav Army took up their various causes in already existing EIGHT, de facto, independent states. Once the wars began certain elements of the various eight independent security services, police, territorial defence (civil) armies, overtook Miloševic and the events. The fact that Miloševic was considered the most powerful is due to Croat and Titoist Communist propagandists in the psychological and idealogica aspects of the wars.

Vladimir Maricic | 29 August 2016  

Cont.... It is not logical that the outcome of the Yugoslav Wars was the creation of SEVEN independent states, IF we deny the existence of the political project to create these states. The Serbs rightly thought that things should be renegotiated if Yugoslavia dissolves. That was why Serbs were FORCED to fight. A civilized disassociation like the once caused by the BREXIT is an example how countries can peacefully renegotiate their status within a union. The fact is that Serbs who constituted the majority in Yugoslavia, and who de facto created it, were forced to live in seven or eight independent states. We forget that Tito's Yugoslav Constitution was a project of the Communist International of the 1930s. The Communists and those nations which were the winners of this state of affairs: Kosovo Albanians, Croats, Slovenes, Vojvodina Communists, Bosnian Muslims, and other minorities wanted to retain their power. The facts are that this was cruel war which was forced upon Serbs. The Titoists brand of Communists are still very strong in Belgrade and Vojvodina becuase they were financed by the international community (via Soros Open Society Funds) to fight the psychological and ideological aspects of the war.

Vlad | 29 August 2016  

Gordana Kneževic is not "Serbian" journalist. She is Bosnian. She was a member of Yugoslav Communist Party. She lived her entire life in Bosnia. She supported Muslim fundamentalist Alija Izetbegovic and his vision of Bosnia as a Muslim country in the heart of Europe. Milosevic was a megalomaniac, but it takes two (at least) for the war. It's really strange you didn't mention Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and his crimes against ethnic Serbs in Croatia during ex Yugoslav war. Around 500,000 ethnic Serbs were murdered, displaced, banished from Croatia. Tudjman died in time, he didn't face justice for the crimes against ethnic Serbs. Not to mention General Ante Gotovina who was convicted of war crimes against Serbs by Hague Tribunal, but "miraculously" exonerated on Appeal. The article is very biased, but then again, people who want to know the truth will always find it, someplace else.

Madeleine Albright | 30 August 2016  

I stopped reading at "Hitler".

DEDA CVETKO | 30 August 2016  

AJP Taylor was a great historian and historians tend to look at the big picture rather than the minutiae. Both Hitler and Milosovic operated on the principle that the end justifies the means, though in terms of scale, the former was a far greater 'murdering psychotic " than the latter. The end never justifies the means especially when the methodology is resort to power, troops and weapons.Robert McNamara made an interesting point in his documentary "The fog of war" that had the USA and the Allies not won WW2, they would have been the ones charged with war crimes rather than the Nazis and the Japanese. The brutality of a doctor in Auschwitz pales into insignificance compared to the firestorms of Tokyo and Dresden and the ultimate State sanctioned bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Francis Armstrong | 30 August 2016  

Thanks for the article which raises many sensitive issues. Madeleine, if Wikipedia is to be believed, Gordana was born in Belgrade. I'm not sure how she identifies but from the outside it would seem that a good descriptor is that she is as a Bosnian Serb living in Canada. Such nationality descriptors matter so it does help to get them right. I respect people who want to be called Yugoslavs too, from experience they are in their 60's or older. There were many demonic leaders in this war and it does help to recognise that they were not all Serbs. However to lessen any aggressor's guilt is to distort history and to give credibility to their cause so I do agree with your conclusion, Binoy.

Carol | 30 August 2016  

So he's damned if he does and damned if he doesn't? What about Tudjman and Izetbegovic? They were just as responsible, if not more so, for the destruction of Yugoslavia.

Max | 30 August 2016  

I lived in Belgrade for the entire time of Milosevic's rule. He is without any doubt the guiltiest party of them all. Milosevic is head above the rest the key factor behind the murderous destruction of Yugoslavia and of the tragedy of countless civilians.

Peter | 23 September 2016  

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