Serbia After Milosevic

by Limbic on March 21, 2006

From comes an intriguing theory that Milosevic’s death is a boon to the new liberal Serbia.

Serbia After Milosevic

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was buried this past weekend, though controversy over his life — and death — lives on.

The timing of Milosevic’s passing will circumscribe, not nurture, Serbian nationalists’ ability to reassert and project power.


Slobodan Milosevic was buried in his hometown of Pozarevac, about 45 miles east of Belgrade, on March 18. The former Yugoslav president died of a heart attack March 11 in the custody of the U.N.
International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

First thoughts paint a rather bleak picture for Serbia’s future. The Serbian Radical Party, which during the 1990s was the junior and more nationalist member of Milosevic’s ruling Socialist-Radical coalition, is the largest force in the Serbian parliament, with one-third of the legislative body’s seats. With Kosovo and Montenegro likely to achieve internationally-sanctioned independence by year’s end, even under a best-case scenario Serbia is about to develop a new electoral scheme.

Judging from nationalist fervor, it seems a Radical government, perhaps supported by the Socialists, is about to take power.

But take a closer look.

Of Theories and Sundered Dreams

Among the various theories postulated for Milosevic’s death are suicide; murder by the tribunal, which allegedly decided to have Milosevic killed because it could not convict him; or accidental death caused by Milosevic’s attempt to sabotage his own medical treatment in order to win a medical evacuation to Russia where he could claim asylum.

All three theories are somewhat sketchy. Suicide may run in Milosevic’s family, but the man has had five years in detention to ponder his fate. There is little reason to suggest he would have chosen to kill himself prior to any conviction. The tribunal had plenty of evidence to convict him, making it an unlikely assassin. As to self-sabotage, while Milosevic’s actions as Yugoslavia’s president show he was a risk-taker, nothing suggests he was deluded enough to think a first world country like the Netherlands would feel the need to send a patient in need of urgent care on a several-hour plane flight to a country with a less-than-stellar medical complex.

Which leaves us asking the simple question: Who stood to gain the most from the death of a pre-conviction Milosevic? One must imagine what a successful conviction would have meant to answer this question.

First, the people behind the war crimes tribunal wanted Milosevic convicted. While achieving a sense of justice was certainly a consideration, there is also the much broader issue of establishing the legitimacy of an international tribunal carrying out trials against the worst human rights abuses. If anything, the tribunal — now denied its endgame and soon likely to be fighting for its existence — is the entity most hurt by Milosevic’s death.

Second, Milosevic’s conviction would have ignited a nationalist firestorm in Serbia. Perhaps those with the most to gain from Milosevic’s sentencing would have been his ideological allies back home. It is one thing to have your icon in chains at The Hague, quite another to have him martyred via a conviction and imprisonment.

Third, Milosevic foes throughout the Balkans not only would have celebrated Milosevic’s official damnation, but also could have used the precedent to level numerous lawsuits against Serbia itself. To a large degree, the trial was not simply about condemning the actions of a single man, but about sentencing Serbia as a whole. Bosnia and Croatia, for example, have already filed lawsuits against Serbia at the International Court of Justice seeking tens of billion of dollars for Belgrade’s role in the Yugoslav wars.

As it happens, none of these three developments will come to pass now.

The tribunal is seeking to justify its continued existence; the nationalists have a memory but not a martyr, at least beyond their point of view, while Serbia has escaped the moral condemnation of the global community.

A Successful Failure

That last aspect of Milosevic’s premature death possesses perhaps the most important consequences for the future. Serbians are not merely impoverished economically, they are emotionally exhausted. A convicted Milosevic would have implied a convicted Serbian population, while a Milosevic dead before conviction removes the cloud that has hung over Belgrade since the former president was hauled before the tribunal in 2001. Serbians can now treat Milosevic as an unfortunate part of their history, and not as a present — and permanent — ball and chain. The Serbs want to move on. With Milosevic dead and the tribunal meaningless, now they can. Imagine, in comparison, how fertile the ground would have been for Serbian nationalists had the entire population felt crushed under the weight of official international condemnation.

By all rights, Serbia should be a regional economic and political hub.

It sits astride the only major road and rail network linking Greece to the European core, as well as the Danube, the region’s primary water traffic route. It has a decent infrastructure (excellent considering the NATO bombings in 1999) and a well-educated, internationally aware population. Add in relatively pro-business tax and regulatory policies and a broadly multilingual population, and if any European country should be experiencing a rapid economic takeoff, it should be Serbia.

This hardly means the months ahead will be easy. Inflation is hovering dangerously high at 17 percent, eating into personal incomes approaching their lowest level in a generation. The rebuilding effort will cost tens of billions, and will take at least a decade.

Meanwhile, the government remains a rickety coalition of broadly discredited parties, only able to maintain power because of informal support from none other than Milosevic’s Socialists. Even so, the coalition will likely last out the year. While the Radicals and Socialists are certainly enjoying a short burst in the public eye, the two parties know full well what is in the country’s immediate future.

No one wants to be in control when Belgrade is finally forced to release its legal grip (it long ago lost its actual grip) on Kosovo and Montenegro.

Besides, the Socialists are about to experience a bit of an internal uproar. So long as Milosevic was in charge, he led (in absentia) the party. Now, the messy and grueling process of selecting a leader and building a platform that consists of something broader than “Free Slobo!” must begin.

A New Serbia

But even should the nationalist tide resurge and the Radicals and/or Socialists regain power, Serbia is not the place it was before it lost four consecutive wars. The country’s military capabilities are a pale shadow of what they were before the Kosovo war of 1999, much less the outset of the Yugoslav wars in 1991. Serbia maintains a well-educated populace capable of discipline and rebuilding, but it lacks the military capacity to do much more than supply irregulars in places such as Kosovo or the Serb portions of Bosnia.

In addition to being insufficient for the task — particularly in Kosovo — such actions would also draw direct attention from NATO, which has forces in both locations. Serbia’s nationalists may be angry, but they are not mad.

All in all, Milosevic’s untimely death thus has closed the sad chapter of the Yugoslav wars — not opened a new one in Balkan history. With the European Union about to absorb Bulgaria and Romania, the region has more potential for stability and growth now than at any time since 1990. And it is doing so with a healing Serbia — a Serbia that would not heal had the tribunal been allowed to issue its verdict — at its heart.

The real question for you conspiracy theorists out there is this: whose best interests are served by that ?

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