Do you remember the Yugoslav Wars of the ’90s? Kosovo, Bosnia, and all that? If you’re American, you could be forgiven for not remembering. It’s time to bring up a chapter not often discussed in this country.
You might be young enough that the name “Yugoslavia” means little or nothing to you. It was a state that existed in Southeastern Europe from 1922 until the early 1990s. Today, the territories that once comprised Yugoslavia are now split up into Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo. (The independence of the latter from Serbia is still a matter of some dispute.)
This breakup was by no means a clean or bloodless process. Instead, the region was carved up by state terror, brutal warfare, and ethnic cleansing. This violent disintegration of the former Soviet-aligned republic drew the attention of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, headed by the US. In the aftermath of the Cold War, the US was eager to prove that NATO was still relevant and necessary. Wars in the disintegrating Yugoslavia provided the perfect opportunity.
Selling a war to the public works best when there’s a clear villain. Enter: Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. He was accused of spearheading efforts to have Serbia ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs, by means of both forced deportation and outright genocide. Imprisoned in 2001, he died 5 years later while his war crimes trial at The Hague was still ongoing, and thus the full scope of his complicity or involvement has never been legally determined.
This is not the same as saying he is innocent, of course. The most charitable reading of his behavior is that he did not intend for mass slaughter and human rights abuses to occur, but merely looked the other way when they benefited him, denouncing them when it was politically prudent to do so. Such a scenario does not inspire faith in the man’s innocence. On the other hand, I cannot say whether he was guilty of the specific crimes with which he was charged. I’m not a lawyer, much less one qualified to examine the profoundly messy circumstances of the Yugoslav Wars, in which everyone was basically abusing and killing everyone else.
That hasn’t stopped some from pushing an agenda that he was, in fact, innocent of all charges, which brings me to the reason for posting this now, rather than some other time. Recently, the trial of Radovan Karadžić concluded. In March, the Bosnian Serb politician who served as President of Republika Srpska was found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and a sentence of 40 years was handed down. This event passed without much fanfare–the verdict was expected in advance.
But in the past few weeks, stories have circulated that buried in Karadžić’s multi-thousand-page judgment is an exoneration of Milošević. This angle appears to have originated with Neil Clark, who first “broke” the story via RT. If you are unfamiliar with RT, it stands for “Russia Today.” RT is funded by the Russian government and is generally regarded as a propaganda outlet. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the logic involved here.
Gordana Knezevic of Radio Free Europe indicates that Clark has been grinding this ax for some time:
Clark asks why there was no official announcement or press conference regarding Milosevic’s “exoneration.” He goes on to thank journalist and researcher Andy Wilcoxon, who wrote early this month about the March 24 Karadzic judgment, for this supposedly game-changing discovery regarding international justice.
So, has the man who oversaw the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II been declared innocent? Clark has been making a name for himself as a leading apologist for Milosevic, for Serbian war crimes, and more recently for Putin’s actions in Ukraine. But this time he has really gone too far.
This is a perfect example of fact-bending journalism. I sent an e-mail to the ICTY to get their reaction to the Wilcoxon and Clark reports on Milosevic’s supposed exoneration.
The ICTY replied:
“The Trial Chamber of the Karadzic case found, at paragraph 3460, page 1303, of the Trial Judgement, that ‘there was no sufficient evidence presented in this case to find that Slobodan Milosevic agreed with the common plan’ [to create territories ethnically cleansed of non-Serbs]. The Trial Chamber found earlier in the same paragraph that ‘Milosevic provided assistance in the form of personnel, provisions and arms to Bosnian Serbs during the conflict’.”
The Trial Chamber did not in fact make any determination of guilt with respect to Milosevic in its verdict against Karadzic. Indeed, Milosevic was not charged or accused in the Karadzic case. The fact that a person is, or is not, found to be part of a joint criminal enterprise in a case in which he is not charged has no impact on the status of his own case or his own criminal responsibility.
In short, the trial against Karadzic was against him and him only, and therefore has no impact on the separate case against Slobodan Milosevic. Karadzic, meanwhile, was found guilty of crimes against humanity and genocide, in case Clark has any reservations about Karadzic’s role in the Balkan wars. The full judgement against Karadzic is publicly available here.
If one rather bland, months-old, morsel of legalistic caveat is the prize catch for Clark after trawling through several thousand pages of transcripts of the Karadzic trial, then it is a rather poor one. One is left with the impression that apologists for dictators and deniers of mass crimes continue to excel in the mendacious art of clutching at straws — in this case, a single straw.
This seems to be the confluence of two separate but conveniently aligned agendas. Clark, for whatever reason, seeks to minimize Milošević’s actions. In RT, he finds a platform that is happy to undermine Western interests, especially NATO.
According to Knezevic, there’s quite a cottage industry of apologists for Milošević, as described in a Daily Beast piece from 2013. If you dare to recall a newsletter that surfaced in 2011 which saw then-Presidential candidate Ron Paul under fire for its bigoted, homophobic, outlandish content, there was a healthy dose of Milošević-rehabilitation, too:
But Rockwell isn’t the nuttiest of the people associated with the institute—not even close.
That honor likely belongs to the Dickensian-named John Laughland, a British writer who has never met a Central or Eastern European autocrat he didn’t like. A prominent defender of the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Laughland penned a book on his Hague war-crimes trial titled Travesty (the “travesty” in question not being the Bosnian Serb genocide of Muslims, which Laughland denies ever took place, but the “kangaroo court” that brought Milosevic to justice and which Laughland blamed for his 2006 death). Laughland has also defended Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych (whose attempt to steal the 2004 election sparked that country’s peaceful Orange Revolution) and lamented the fate of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Europe’s last dictator, victim of “humiliating treatment” at the hands of a “propaganda campaign waged against” him “by the West.”
Animating Laughland’s defense of these loathsome individuals is his belief that “Washington is promoting a system of political and military control not unlike that once practiced by the Soviet Union.” But the common thread uniting these alleged victims of Western imperialism is their resistance to the democratizing, liberal reforms insisted upon by the U.S., the European Union, and NATO, not to mention their chumminess with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Sometimes, it’s fascinating to dive down these rabbit holes. Other times, it’s just depressing. This time, I find it a combination of both.
I felt compelled to put this piece together after having seen some friends of mine, whom I generally respect, parading around this little bit of Russian propaganda. While I cannot say with any certainty that Milošević was as bad a war criminal as he’s been portrayed in Western media, it’s laughable to suggest he was some kind of innocent, swept up by events bigger than himself. He was a devoted despot who sought mainly to consolidate and expand his own power, and woe betide anyone who got in his way. Intentional mass murderer or not, he was no wrongfully accused hero.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.