April 5, 2001

Milosevic’s Seizure Unveils Hidden Agendas

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic arrived in a Belgrade jail Sunday, accused by Serbian authorities of corruption, embezzling state funds, and abuse of power. He surrendered peacefully to the militia besieging his home for nearly two days this past weekend, despite having reportedly threatened to kill himself, and the presence of about twenty armed supporters willing to defend him from government assault.


Milosevic’s arrest was anything but ordinary. Friday afternoon, regular police cleared away the demonstrators who had gathered at the news that a convoy full of armed men had arrived at the gate of the former president’s home. Indeed, several hundred heavily armed, masked men in black or mismatched uniforms did appear, many wearing balaclavas or pantyhose on their heads as disguise. An agency report revealed in passing that the force was commanded by Mihajlo Ulemek "Legija," a former Special Forces officer loyal since October 5, 2000 to Zoran Djindjic. Back then, the Daily Telegraph spoke of Ulemek’s alliance with Djindjic – not yet Prime Minister – as a disturbing sign that Djindjic was creating a private militia.

After an unpleasant exchange between the militia and the Army unit guarding the residence, the Army withdrew. An announcement around 10 PM Friday that Milosevic had been arrested and taken to the central prison in a convoy of cars distracted the populace. With the Army and the demonstrators gone and most of Milosevic’s security disbanded, Ulemek’s men were ready to make their move. Shortly before three in the morning, they stormed the residence – and failed. Milosevic’s remaining guards greeted them with bullets. A 24-hour-plus siege followed, ending only when Milosevic decided to surrender early Sunday morning, April 1.


Milosevic's arrest was hailed by the US, NATO and Yugoslavia s neighbors and separatist groups as a vindication of their policies and practices, while the ICTY immediately demanded Milosevic s extradition and embarked on adding new charges to his war crimes indictment. There was hardly cause for such celebration; President Kostunica flat-out refused extradition, and Milosevic is to be tried on charges that have nothing to do with his alleged war crimes.

Nevertheless, the triumphant escalation of Western rhetoric bore numerous indications that the policy goals of the US and its satellites aimed far beyond the fate of Milosevic as an individual.

As news of arrest streamed in, some commentators suggested Milosevic should indeed commit suicide and save the Serbs from further pressure. Others claimed he was never really contemplating suicide, and that Milosevic’s death would only serve US interests by removing a significant obstacle.

The matter of Milosevic's guilt or innocence on charges in Yugoslavia and the ICTY is less important at this moment than the fact that he is being used as a weapon, both by the usual suspects – the US and NATO – as well as a faction of the current government, eager to increase its power and influence. Aside from showing a readiness to bow to US demands, Milosevic’s arrest strengthened the position of Prime Minister Djindjic and his supporters at the expense of President Kostunica.


Indications that Zoran Djindjic and his supporters in the government were behind the arrest are legion. First, Djindjic had just returned from a trip to the US, eager to make a deal with the Bush administration not to block financial aid to Yugoslavia after March 31. That was the deadline in the appropriations law passed by Congressional hardliners last fall, which mandated a cutoff of US aid and efforts to block all other aid to Yugoslavia unless Milosevic was arrested and extradited to the ICTY.

The evening Ulemek’s masked men tried to enter Milosevic’s courtyard, Djindjic claimed he knew nothing about any arrest, and that he was at home, watching "Gladiator" with his son. Yet just three days earlier, he told Reuters that Milosevic’s arrest was only a matter of time, after seven former government officials had been arrested on corruption charges. President Kostunica, however, was kept in the dark, as he was giving a speech in Geneva at the time and had to rush home after receiving the news.

Zarko Korac, one of Djindjic’s most vocal allies in the government, claimed he knew about the arrest beforehand. He also gave statements to the press afterwards, describing the events inside Milosevic’s home as if he witnessed them and calling the former president suicidal. Cedomir Jovanovic, who was inside the residence and managed to persuade Milosevic to give up, confirmed at a press-conference Tuesday that Milosevic contemplated suicide. While acknowledging that Milosevic surrendered because he did not want bloodshed, Jovanovic also criticized the Army (loyal to Kostunica) for stopping Ulemek’s people from initially assaulting the house. Incidentally, he is a high-ranking member of Djindjic’s Democratic party.

When President Kostunica finally green-lighted the arrest on Saturday, he reportedly made this decision only after a long meeting with Djindjic and his associates. Friday night’s botched assault and the ensuing firefight forced his hand. After such an event, backing off would be a major PR defeat for the government.


Djindjic’s ability to sidestep Kostunica and extort his support is a profoundly disturbing trend. If the Serbian Prime Minister and his followers can effectively do whatever they want while the Yugoslav President is confined to criticizing or supporting their actions after the fact, Kostunica is in real danger of becoming Gorbachev to Djindjic’s Yeltsin.

On Tuesday, Croatia’s government daily Vjesnik heralded Kostunica’s political death, claiming that Djindjic is in tune with US policy goals in the Balkans and willing to submit to them completely, while Kostunica’s patriotism is passé and has become a liability. According to Vjesnik, Djindjic would prosper as long as he fulfills Western demands – which, incidentally, include the further weakening and dismemberment of Serbia.


Having paid for Milosevic’s arrest with a relatively paltry sum, the US is intent on assailing Serbia further. America’s Balkans policy is about much more than Milosevic. Over the past ten years, Western politicians and media tended to pursue "Slobophobia" – a notion that Milosevic was a single culprit, and the Serbian people were merely deluded by his powers of manipulation. But another idea has been present all along – Serbophobia – the notion that the Serbs as a whole were guilty of events in the Balkans over the past decade, and that Milosevic merely personified the entire nation. Serbophobia was used to complement Slobophobia when the latter, alone, was not enough. But it was always used sparingly in order to avoid the deserving accusations of racism.

After Milosevic's arrest, that distinction disappeared. With him in prison – even only for corruption – Imperial propagandists began attacking the Serbs as a people. Demands on the Yugoslav authorities are likely to continue – extradite Milosevic to The Hague, arrest and extradite all other indicted Serbs, and so on. When US Ambassador Montgomery delivered the list of Washington's demands to Belgrade in early March, it openly stated that Washington considered Djindjic's government much more likely to comply with the ever-multiplying conditions for aid and support.

ICTY has already announced it would be indicting Milosevic soon for alleged crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, eager to saddle Milosevic with the responsibility for those wars as well. In line with that, agencies have already reported excitedly that Milosevic admitted supporting the Bosnian Serbs with money he was accused of embezzling, as if this were a well-guarded secret.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Past Articles


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana’s Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


Even Djindjic is not claiming that Milosevic would be extradited soon, though his statements can mean one thing in the morning and something else altogether in the afternoon. Milosevic, meanwhile, is facing new charges in Serbia; on top of corruption and abuse of power, the authorities are considering the charges of resisting arrest and conspiracy to foment armed rebellion, the latter basically constituting treason and punishable by death. Serbia’s minister of police, once part of a Milosevic government, said Tuesday in Vienna that Milosevic might actually wish to go to the Hague, because the ICTY does not have a death penalty.

A trial at home for corruption or treason, however, would be entirely different in scope from a trial in The Hague.

The ICTY is funded by the US and other NATO members. Its very existence is based on the premise that Milosevic and the Serbs were guilty of aggressive wars and unspeakable crimes. Unlike other courts, whose existence is not predicated on the outcome of any single trial, even a possibility of acquittal for Milosevic would shatter the ICTY’s very foundations. In fact, this need for securing convictions has prompted the prosecutors to get very creative in presenting evidence.

A case in the point is the trial of Serb General Radislav Krstic. It recently featured a protected (i.e. anonymous) prosecution witness, an American "linguistics expert" who claimed the speech patterns of Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia are so distinctive, it would be "very difficult for Bosnian Muslims to imitate the speech of Bosnian Serbs." Now I know this is a bald-faced lie. I have been speaking like any other Bosnian, Serb or Muslim, for over 24 years!


In the aftermath of his fall from power and recent arrest, media that have fed the Western public all sorts of fabrications regarding the Balkans for over a decade trolled out the official line that Milosevic was an ideologue of "Greater Serbia," responsible for four Balkan wars, genocide, "ethnic cleansing," and in general, most of the misery that now grips Serbia and the rest of former socialist Yugoslavia. Most of these accusations are mendacious drivel. But whether he is guilty of them or not does not matter in the least.

In order to justify the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, policies of the United States, NATO’s gross violations of international law and the existence of ICTY, Milosevic has to be convicted of war crimes by the ICTY. No other outcome would be recognized by Washington. Most Serbs, impoverished, disillusioned and itching to blame it on someone they are capable of hurting – NATO and the US being out of reach – are more than willing to see him imprisoned or shot, no matter the consequences. But by doing so, they would be admitting responsibility for the alleged crimes Milosevic is accused of, and open themselves up to new indictments, lawsuits and demands.

Milosevic could potentially become much more harmful to his people in court than he ever was at liberty. There is a precarious distinction between prosecuting Milosevic at home for domestic crimes and delivering him to the Inqusition to appease Serbia's many enemies.

Prosecuting him for misrule would clearly benefit the Serbs; allowing him to be persecuted by ICTY would open the door to persecuting the Serbs as a whole.

It is a trap both Kostunica and Djindjic are aware of, but while Kostunica is attempting a delicate balancing act to avoid it, Djindjic – concerned only about his power and prestige – is all to eager to jump right in.

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