Accessibility links

Breaking News

Serbia-Montenegro: Slobodan Milosevic's Life And Legacy

(epa) Slobodan Milosevic will now never face a sentence for war crimes, but by the time he died it was all too clear that he had bequeathed a bleak legacy to Serbia and Montenegro and to the Balkans as a whole.

PRAGUE, March 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) – Former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has died aged 64 in his cell at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He had spent more than four years in The Hague on trial for 66 charges that included genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed during the wars he launched in Croatia (1990-1995), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-1995), and Kosovo (1998-1999).

The cause of his death is as yet unknown, pending a Dutch police autopsy. Initial assessments suggest that he died of natural causes, possibly stemming from a long history of high blood pressure, a range of other cardiovascular problems, and diabetes, all of which seem to be related to a generally sedentary lifestyle. His medical problems had led to repeated interruptions in his trial.

Although there is a history of suicide in Milosevic's family, several commentators at the tribunal and elsewhere pointed out after his death that he had not seemed suicidal in recent weeks and appeared to be enjoying his role as his own defense attorney.

He was "the only Yugoslav politician to realize that Tito was dead."

Milosevic never accepted the tribunal's authority over him, putting up a robust defense of his presidency and launching fierce attacks on the court itself and on the international community.

He argued that "this trial has as its purpose the justification of the war crimes committed by the NATO pact in Yugoslavia" by bombing Serbia in 1999, an action taken to stop what was widely seen as Milosevic's campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Milosevic argued he was responding to a terrorist campaign in the province, which was predominantly populated by ethnic Albanians.

Milosevic's Years In Power

Slobodan Milosevic delivering an election speech in September 2000 (epa)

In initial reactions to his death, many commentators inside former Yugoslavia and abroad noted that Milosevic's passing before the conclusion of the trial means that justice will not be carried out.

Croatian President Stipe Mesic's office said in a statement that "it is a pity that Milosevic did not live through the trial and get his deserved sentence."

Similar comments came from Sarajevo from Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member of Bosnia's three-member presidency.

A spokesman for Kosovo's President Fatmir Sejdiu called Milosevic an "unrepentant criminal," while Kosovo's Prime Minister Agim Ceku argued that Milosevic's death offers Serbia "the chance to build a new democratic future and to redefine its relationship with its neighbors."

But what is his overall legacy to former Yugoslavia?

Trained as a banker in the communist system, Milosevic rose to power in the late 1980s as the protege of Serbian leader Ivan Stambolic, with whom he would later split and for whose abduction and murder in 2000 many believe Milosevic is responsible.

Milosevic was an opportunist rather than a convinced nationalist, but he used Serbian nationalism to win votes. He played upon many long-standing Serbian grievances over what many Serbs saw as their second-class status in a country for which they had fought in two world wars.

Regardless of the merits of those grievances, they were widely held and provided him with a strong electoral base, particularly among the Serbian minority in Kosovo, who felt politically, economically, and demographically threatened by their ethnic Albanian neighbors. Famously, he promised Serbs in Kosovo in 1987 that Serbia would never abandon them. "I want to tell you: Don't be concerned. Don't be afraid. We will never give up Kosovo," he said then.

Milosevic was, moreover, in the words of one observer, "the only Yugoslav politician to realize that [former communist leader Josip Broz] Tito was dead," and that a power vacuum had been waiting to be filled since Tito's passing in 1980.

To fill that vacuum, Milosevic became head of the League of Communists of Serbia in 1986 and within four years had consolidated his hold over Serbia -- including Kosovo and the multiethnic province of Vojvodina -- and Montenegro.

In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia left the Yugoslav federation rather than accept unity under his domination. Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were the next to opt for independence rather than become Milosevic's subjects.

He manipulated the ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina with slogans like "all Serbs in one state" and "Serbia will give us weapons," and by using the Yugoslav People's Army for his own ends.

In 1995, with Serbian forces defeated on Croatian and Bosnian battlefields, and civilians fleeing to an uncertain future in a Serbia that did not recognize them as citizens, the international community sought him out as a peacemaker.

Milosevic took on that role with enthusiasm. He later complained in The Hague that if he were as criminal as described in the charges filed against him, then why did so many prominent foreigners engage him and negotiate with him?

He ultimately lost any international respectability or status with the 1998-1999 campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, which led to NATO's intervention. His eventual ouster in Belgrade in October 2000 was the result of street protests in Serbia and a careful realignment of some of the forces in Serbian public life that had previously supported him but now cut deals with his opponents.

A Bleak Legacy

A Kosovo Liberation Army soldier beside the bodies of two elderly ethnic Albanians killed near Racak in 1999 (epa)

When Milosevic was finally extradited to The Hague, in June 2001, the massive demonstrations on his behalf that many had predicted or feared never materialized. For most Serbs, he was already yesterday's man.

Milosevic left behind an impoverished country and thousands of refugees from his wars. Most will probably never go home.

In the late 1980s, many thought that Yugoslavia would be eastern Europe's first member of the European Community, the predecessor of today's European Union (EU). Instead, thanks above all to the divisive nationalist policies and wars of Milosevic, almost all of Europe's formerly communist states have joined the EU ahead of almost all of the Yugoslav successor states.

Milosevic On Trial

Milosevic On Trial

For an archive of RFE/RL's coverage of the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, click here.

Of related interest:

RFE/RL Special: The Collapse Of Tito's Yugoslavia

RFE/RL Special: Yugoslavia's Democratic Revolution