The first jail
Two days after an armed standoff began, just after the expiry of a US deadline on continued aid, Slobodan Milošević was taken into custody on charges of abuse of power in the early hours of Sunday.
The night before, as a special police unit tried to execute the warrant, shooting broke out as the former President's guard defended him. About five hundred Milošević supporters surrounded the Dedinje villa after breaking through the police cordon. They beat a rhythm on the walls, chanting "Slobo, we will let you go." But twenty-four hours later, their hero was inside the bleak Central Belgrade jail.
A few shots, then all over
There were a few shots, too, before the arrest. It's not clear who fired them, although early reports were that one man was injured. But any resistance was quickly overcome, or abandoned, and a convoy of vehicles bearing the former President and his entourage left the compound.
Milošević's Socialist Party (SPS) insisted he had only gone there to talk to the prosecutors about the "ridiculous" charges against him. "If they want to accuse me of taking money, let them tell me where it is," said Milošević in a telephone interview with the American TV station NBC a few hours before.
The next jail?
Most Serbs, while they might be uncomfortable about their new government being so obviously subservient to the US deadline, will be happy to see Milošević in court. Whatever their earlier feelings about him, even the most nationalist know that by the mid-nineties he was leading them to disaster. The largest single group of refugees still unable to return home from all the Yugoslav wars remains the Serbs fo Knin Krajina. Bringing down the might of NATO on Serbia's infrastructure was the final catastrophe.
As the evidence of his plundering of the country's resources is opened up, there will be plenty of calls for him to die in jail. Official comment from the Bosnian Serbs in Republika Srpska was especially critical of Milošević this weekend.
But will the Serbs be willing to see him on trial at The Hague? Will they get a choice?
Friends in high places
Some cynics think there are so many Western statesmen who cosied up to Milošević, some of whom profited from the association, that there will be an embarrassed silence about the past and a block on any attempt to put him on an international stage like The Hague tribunal.
But that ignores the way democracy works in the West. In Britain, for example, the change of government in 1997 means the politicians who were so keen to support a strong man in the Balkans and turned a blind eye to the murder and mayhem of the Milošević years are no longer in power.
Britain's foreign secretary, the Labour Party's Robin Cook, calls putting Milošević on trial "the unfinished business in the Balkans." One of his predecessors, the former Conservative Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, worked with a British bank to help arrange the sale of state assets. That provided funds that undoubtedly helped Milošević survive a further election.
The Bush administration is in a less comfortable position, since Bush senior turned obfuscation into an art form when it came to Balkan policy. Overall, though, too many democracies have too many angry, powerful voices calling for the truth on Western policy during the 1990s.
But the big factor which should ensure Milošević ends up on trial in the Netherlands is the tenacity and increasing success of the Tribunal itself. New Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte has seen defendants with increasingly important profiles arriving in The Hague, most notably Biljana Plavšić. The long sentences handed out to convicted criminals of all nationalities and the growing co-operativeness of the Croatian government means the evidence against Milošević will be powerful and public.
Humanity first, Serbia next
The Prosecutor's spokesperson, Florence Hartmann, insisted The Hague trial should come first. "We have no objections to the Yugoslav authorities trying him for fraud once he has stood trial for the more serious crimes against humanity," she said.
That all makes the future exciting. For now, though, people all over the region will be cheering what so recently seemed impossible news. The "Butcher of the Balkans" is in jail. His friends will sweat about what he will say about them and his enemies can start to feel safe enough to tell the truth about what he did to them. First they'll have to check it's not an April Fool trick.
Dan Damon, 1 April 2001
- Archive of Serbian news reviews
- Archive of articles on Yugoslavia in CER
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page