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Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's death in custody means that his trial will never resume, and the facts of the case against him will never be established in a court of law -- and so Clark and his ilk can continue to imagine an alternate reality.

Strange mid-summer news: A U.K.-based pundit, in an op-ed piece in RT, sensationally claims that the late Slobodan Milosevic has been "exonerated" by the UN court that deals with war crimes that took place during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia who died in his cell in The Hague a decade ago while awaiting trial on a host of war crimes charges, has long been accused of masterminding those wars.

But in discussing the verdict from a separate case issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Neil Clark argues in RT that it had quietly cleared Milosevic of responsibility for war crimes.

"The ICTY's conclusion, that one of the most demonized figures of the modern era was innocent of the most heinous crimes he was accused of, really should have made headlines across the world," Clark writes. "But it hasn't. Even the ICTY buried it, deep in its 2,590-page verdict in the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted in March of genocide [at Srebrenica], war crimes and crimes against humanity."

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.

Milosevic's Army, Media

Milosevic's death in custody means that his trial will never resume, and the facts of the case against him will never be established in a court of law -- and so Clark and his ilk can continue to imagine an alternate reality. While that is unfortunate, I can only confront Clark (and Wilcoxon) with my own experience.

I remember the morning in early April 1992 when the tanks of the Yugoslav Army besieged Sarajevo. (At the time, Branko Kostic was acting president of Yugoslavia, but Milosevic -- as president of Serbia -- held most of the real power.) I lived in the Kosevsko brdo neighborhood, and because of shelling I was unable to make it to the newspaper where I worked. I could see the smoke rising from buildings downtown. From my balcony, I could also see the heavy artillery in the hills above my neighborhood.

My phone was still working, as the main post office and telephone exchange was not burned down until May 2. To my surprise I received a call from the Belgrade radio station Politika. A journalist wanted me to describe what was going on in Sarajevo. For a moment I was happy that someone from Belgrade wanted to know about the suffering of civilians. Many people in Belgrade had friends and relatives in Sarajevo. I was naively hoping that if people in Belgrade found out what was going on, that the army was waging war on civilians in Bosnia, they would be moved to protest its actions.

Concerned that the line could be cut at any moment, I described everything I knew about the Yugoslav Army's attack on the city, without pausing to catch my breath. The Belgrade journalist on the other end told me that we would go live in a few minutes. He then asked me if I could repeat what I had just told him, but without mentioning the Yugoslav Army. "Could you just report on the damage you see, since we do not know who is shooting?" he requested. In despair I explained to my colleague in Belgrade that I did know who was shooting -- that was the point. I told him that from my window I could even make out the red-star insignia of the Yugoslav Army painted on tanks whose barrels were smoking.

He then asked me: "Are you a Serb?" I said yes, but I still have eyes and ears. He apologized, and explained that they could not put me on air after all. They just needed a report on the damage done to the city. They were not allowed to mention the Yugoslav Army. Being under fire and besieged in my city was bad enough, but not being able to report on what I could see around me made it even worse. I felt helpless, humiliated.

Shells hit houses in the suburbs of Sarajevo in August 1992.
Shells hit houses in the suburbs of Sarajevo in August 1992.

The media in Belgrade were controlled by Milosevic, and the army was under his control. This was just the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo that would last more than 1,000 days, from April 6, 1992, to February 29, 1996. Nearly 14,000 people (civilians) were killed, including almost 2,000 children.

'Creeping Rehabilitation'

The fact that the trial against Milosevic was never brought to a conclusion does not change his role in the history of Serbia and of the Balkans. Serbia still refuses to deal with that past -- not only with its actions in neighboring states, but crimes committed in Serbia itself. Several assassinations of prominent politicians during Milosevic's rule are still unsolved. The most prominent is that of Ivan Stambolic, who was preparing to oppose Milosevic in the Serbian presidential election in 2000 when he was killed by security forces while jogging.

There is also the slaying of Serbian journalist Slavko Curuvija. Or the attempted assassination of former Foreign Minister and opposition party leader Vuk Draskovic. The list of Milosevic's victims, or would-be victims, is much longer, of course. The witnesses are disappearing, while people who were part the Milosevic regime are back in power, or inching closer. The leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, Ivica Dacic, was parading Milosevic's grandchild around during his election campaign in April.

A woman touches the bust at the grave of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the town of Pozarevac, Serbia.
A woman touches the bust at the grave of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the town of Pozarevac, Serbia.

This creeping rehabilitation of Milosevic and his regime in Serbia is being abetted by outside forces with their own agendas, whether anti-NATO, pro-Russian, or reckless indulgence of conspiracy theories -- like the Texas-based Ron Paul Institute, which helped carry the invented news on Milosevic's "exoneration."

This article in the Daily Beast helped me understand the background and motives of Milosevic's apologists abroad

According to Serbian historian Latinka Perovic, Serbia's failure to rebuild relations with its neighbors is due to the failure of Serbian society to understand -- and deal with -- the causes of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and Serbia's role in the wars. The mentality of the 1990s endures, she explained in an interview with RFE/RL.

There are many reasons why Serbia has yet to shed the dangerous delusions that led to the catastrophic wars of the 1990s, including the sense of victimhood that is behind the continued denial of war crimes committed in its name. But the process of truth and reconciliation in the region is not helped by unscrupulous war crime deniers like Clark. He seems to enjoy the notoriety of being contrarian, even if it means proclaiming the innocence of war criminals and mass murderers.

NOTE: This article has been revised to identify Branko Kostic as acting president of Yugoslavia in 1992, and to correct Milosevic's status at that time.

Judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi (left), seen here with former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga, will be Kosovo's flag bearer at the opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Rio on August 5.

The 31st Summer Olympics are due to open in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, but for some athletes they will be the first. Kosovo, which became a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) less than two years ago, will become the newest addition to the Olympic family.

Majlinda Kelmendi, 25, a double world judo champion, will be Kosovo’s flag bearer at the opening ceremonies, one of eight Kosovar athletes competing in Rio. For her, it all seems like a fairy tale.

“It’s such an honor for me because it’s the first time that Kosovo is going to be in the Olympic Games and it’s going to be me who’s holding the flag. I have dreamed of this for a long time and finally it is coming,” Kelmendi told CNN.

When Kelmendi won her first world title -- in Rio in 2013 -- it was a first for Kosovo, which had been recognized by the International Judo Federation the previous year.

But when she defended her crown in Russia last year, Kelmendi had to contend with more than her opponents on the mat. Before she could take on -- and defeat -- French Olympic medalist Priscilla Gneto in the finals, she also had to fight the Russian authorities.

Kosovo's First Olympic Team Is Ready For Rio
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Because of Russia’s blanket support for Serbia, Moscow does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. As a result, it was unclear until the last moment if Kelmendi would be allowed to compete as a Kosovar. Delicate negotiations took place on the eve of the event in Kazan. Only following the intervention of International Judo Federation President Marius Vizer did Kelmendi gain permission to compete under her country’s flag.

On August 5, she will be parading it in front of the whole world. Recognized by more than 110 countries, Kosovo is still not a member of the United Nations. However, the country became a full member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in December 2014.

“When we got recognized by the IOC, it was the best thing that happened to Kosovo. Not just for sport but as a country, because now athletes and young kids can dream to be in the Olympics and represent Kosovo,” the judo champ said in the interview with CNN.

Urata Rama
Urata Rama

For Kosovo’s athletes, being admitted into the IOC was a huge relief. Four years ago, Kosovar shooter Urata Rama spoke to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service about her Olympic dreams. Back then, she and other Kosovar athletes still felt isolated from the rest of the sporting community.

Now Rama can focus exclusively on her results, not on whether she might be allowed to compete.

“Peace of mind, and total concentration, is most important for a shooter,” she said, speaking recently to RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “When I started, I did not think I would make it this far, because success in this sport doesn’t come quickly.”

For others, it’s been an even longer wait.

Kelmendi’s judo coach, Driton Kuka, belongs to a generation of athletes whose dreams were wrecked by the Balkan wars of the early 1990s. He was supposed to compete for Yugoslavia at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but Kosovo (which had been stripped of its autonomous status it had enjoyed within Yugoslavia) pulled out its competitors because of the repression of ethnic Albanians by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

Yugoslavia itself was eventually banned from Barcelona because of UN sanctions related to the war in Bosnia, but Kuka’s career at the time was over. He was in his early 20s.

While Kuka didn’t fulfill his Olympic dream as a fighter, he has done so as a trainer. More than 20 years after the disappointment of Barcelona, he’s now going to Rio. A second judoka on Kosovo’s Olympic team, Nora Gjakova, is also his protege.

With recent doping scandals casting a cloud over the Olympics, Kosovo’s biggest medal hope, judo champion Kelmendi, says she hopes the Kosovar team will help restore some of the founding spirit of the Olympic movement.

“I feel so good that, maybe for one or two days, I can make people from Kosovo laugh, make them happy, and maybe forget that we have so many problems here,” she says.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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