The death of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in his jail
cell at the Hague on Saturday has unleashed a torrent of historical distortions
and outright lies that echo the propaganda campaign waged more than seven years
ago to justify the US-NATO war against the country.
Officials with the UN war crimes tribunal reported that Milosevic died from
a massive heart attack, but indicated a determination of whether it was from
natural causes would have to await a toxicology report.
Chief UN war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte suggested that the former Yugoslav
president may have committed suicide in order to avoid an expected guilty verdict
and a life prison sentence. Milosevic’s lawyer, however, reported that
his client had written a letter to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just
a day before he died pleading for help and charging that his jailers were giving
him harmful drugs in an attempt to silence him.
According to Dutch public television, a blood sample taken from Milosevic last
month showed traces of a powerful drug used to treat leprosy which can neutralize
other drugs the former Yugoslav leader was taking for high blood pressure and
Milosevic’s assassination cannot be ruled out. In any case, there is
no question that the UN tribunal, and behind it Washington, bear full responsibility
for his death. It was well known that Milosevic was suffering from serious heart
problems, yet last month the court’s chief judge denied his request that
he be allowed to receive treatment in Russia before resuming the trial.
It is also clear that the trial—universally promoted by Western governments
and media as “the most important since Nuremberg”—had turned
into a political embarrassment, producing no real proof of Milosevic’s
direct responsibility for the terrible crimes carried out during the civil wars
that erupted in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It had threatened to become even more
of a problem for those who organized it after Milosevic, at the end of February,
asked the tribunal to issue a subpoena ordering former US President Bill Clinton
to testify, apparently with the aim of showing that Washington itself was responsible
for crimes against humanity in waging an illegal war against Yugoslavia and
conducting a sustained bombing campaign against civilian targets.
Not a hint of the central role played by US imperialism and other Western
powers in the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resulting carnage is to be found
in the media’s reaction to Milosevic’s death. Instead,
most of what has been written and stated on broadcast news consists in vilifying
the former Yugoslav president as a latter-day Hitler and lamenting the fact
that he will not get the punishment he deserves.
Typical of the media coverage was the commentary provided by Christiane Amanpour,
CNN’s chief international correspondent, who declared Saturday: “From
the moment he ascended to the pinnacle of power that is where he stayed and
that is where he directed what went on in the Balkans—the worst crimes
against humanity that Europe and the world had seen since World War II in Europe.
This was something that went on almost unabated for the better part of the 1990s
decade. He was known to his enemies and to his victims as the ‘Butcher
of the Balkans.’”
Amanpour’s statements are of the same character as the grotesquely exaggerated
and unsubstantiated charges—made at the time by former State Department
spokesman James Rubins, who happens to be her husband—of “genocide”
against Kosovo Albanians, the pretext for the US war against Yugoslavia in 1999.
Similarly, Roger Cohen, the New York Times’ former foreign editor, published
a smug and cynical piece on the newspaper’s front page Sunday portraying
Milosevic as a man for whom “the truth was always a commodity to be manipulated
in the single-minded pursuit of power.” As an example, he claims the Yugoslav
leader had “reinvented” the Croats “as World War II fascists.”
Is this meant to suggest that the World War II mass murder of approximately
900,000 Serbs and Jews by the fascist Ustashe movement either didn’t take
place or is merely ancient history, or that the ideology of the Ustashe’s
political heirs played no role in the resurgence of Croatian national separatism?
Cohen, despite his professed concern for the truth, doesn’t bother to
spell this out.
He goes on to characterize Milosevic as “a ruler of exceptional ruthlessness
always ready to use force in a series of wars, from Croatia in 1991 to Kosovo
in 1999.” He continued, “In effect Mr. Milosevic destroyed the delicate
balance of the Yugoslavia he professed to defend and then expressed wonderment
at its violent destruction.”
There is no doubt that Milosevic bore substantial responsibility for the political
developments that facilitated the break-up of Yugoslavia. For the Western media,
however, to portray him as the all-powerful figure who “directed what
went on in the Balkans” or single handedly “destroyed the delicate
balance of...Yugoslavia” is as false as it is patently self-serving.
What is entirely absent from this potted—“bad Milosevic”—version
of recent Yugoslav history is the decisive role played by major imperialist
powers. The US and Germany, in particular, deliberately engineered the country’s
breakup, with a thorough indifference to the inevitable tragic consequences
of their intervention.
It should be recalled that, like that other arch villain, Iraq’s Saddam
Hussein, Milosevic was at one time viewed with favor by Washington, which, in
the 1980s, supported him as he championed IMF-dictated “market reforms”
and privatizations of nationalized industries. Like his counterparts in the
other Yugoslav republics—Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, Alija Izetbegovic
in Bosnia and Milan Kucan in Slovenia—Milosevic attempted to divert popular
anger over the loss of jobs and the decimation of living standards that resulted
from these policies by fomenting ethnic nationalism. He was not, however, the
initiator of this process. Rather, like other reactionary Stalinist bureaucrats,
he adapted himself to the centrifugal social forces that it unleashed.
With the collapse of the USSR and the reunification of Germany in 1991, the
geopolitical position of Yugoslavia underwent a fundamental transformation.
A resurgent German imperialism saw its interests in the Balkans—historically
a German sphere of influence—best served through the promotion of secession
by Slovenia—the most prosperous Yugoslav region—and then Croatia.
Washington, after first opposing Germany’s intervention and the breakup
of Yugoslavia, decided to get in on the act itself in order to further its goal
of hegemony over the former Eastern bloc countries newly opened to capitalist
exploitation. It became the chief sponsor of Bosnian independence, and later
backed Albanian nationalism and the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in the
run-up to the 1999 US-NATO war.
All those who were knowledgeable of Yugoslav history and politics warned that
this kind of piecemeal breakup of the Yugoslav federation would inevitably lead
to civil war. The forging of new nation states based upon ethnic nationalism
led inexorably to the practice that came to be known as “ethnic cleansing.”
Washington, having thrown its support to Yugoslavia’s dissolution, targeted
Serbia, which defended the unitary state, as its enemy. The US opposed ethnic
cleansing only when it was carried out by Serbs, while actively supporting it
when Croatia, Bosnia and the Kosovo Albanians pursued identical aims through
the same bloody methods.
While none of this excuses the crimes for which Milosevic is responsible, the
fact remains that those who initiated his prosecution themselves bore direct
responsibility for the bloodshed in the Balkans.
The International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague was in every sense an exercise
in victors’ justice. Milosevic was essentially kidnapped from Serbia through
a corrupt deal that offered the regime in Belgrade that had replaced him economic
aid in exchange for surrendering the ex-president.
The indictment of Milosevic was a political rather than a juridical document,
issued in the midst of the US-NATO bombing campaign against Serbia. The tribunal
itself was established and financed by the very same powers that launched the
illegal war against Yugoslavia and carried out what are clearly war crimes—the
bombing of civilian targets—during that intervention.
That the US has been a principal organizer of this trial exposes the fraud
of the entire enterprise. Washington itself accepts neither international law
nor the jurisdiction of any international court over its own actions on the
world arena. It has boycotted the International Criminal Court and strong-armed
governments around the world into signing waivers exempting US officials and
US troops from any liability for war crimes carried out against their peoples.
If, moreover, the trial of Milosevic were really about human rights and international
justice, the obvious question is: Why has the UN not put George W. Bush in the
There is no question that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and others in the current
US administration are responsible for far greater war crimes and a far greater
loss of innocent human life in waging an unprovoked and illegal war against
Iraq than anything perpetrated by Milosevic.
The strongest charge that can be made against Milosevic—presented in
Cohen’s commentary in the Times—is that he resorted to war as a
means of achieving political ends. How immensely greater the guilt, then, of
the current US president? At least Milosevic could make the argument that his
military actions were carried out against the dissolution of his own country,
largely as the result of the machinations of powerful outside powers.
What is Bush’s defense? Every pretext given for the invasion of Iraq
has been exposed as a lie. In the end, one is left with the inescapable conclusion
that the military force of the most powerful imperialist nation on the planet
was unleashed against a small and already war-ravaged country in order to achieve
the hegemony of US capitalism over a strategic region and its oil wealth. In
other words, it was a criminal war of plunder.
That Milosevic was tried, while Bush was numbered among his prosecutors,
only exposes the so-called international justice system as an instrument of
imperialist foreign policy.