The death of Slobodan Milosevic in his cell in the UN detention unit in Schveningen in The Hague isn’t entirely surprising.
His health wasn’t the best, and I remember hearing people years ago fearing that he wouldn’t survive too extended a trial.
He did not, and we will now never get the verdict that was an important purpose of the entire exercise. Too many questions will be left hanging in the air – and that is never good in situations like these.
The story of Slobodan Milosevic is the story of a communist appartschnik in old socialist Yugoslavia who saw that the system was collapsing and decided to ride the tiger of nationalism in order to get to and preserve power.
He wasn’t really much of a nationalist. I dealt with him extensively during a number of years. He had his prejudices, but probably somewhat less than the regional average.
He was an opportunist and a tactician. He was a man of power and ambition. He was never much of a man of principles, and history shows that he was an extremely poor strategists. He was extremely keen in winning the small battles – but he failed to see that he was losing the wars.
It all started in Kosovo when he saw the power of a raw Serbian nationalism that was driven by a no less raw Albanian nationalism. Communism was disappearing – but nationalism was rising.
In the dying days of communism, he made rising nationalism his instrument of power.
There followed the different wars of Yugoslav dissolution. He manoeuvred from the one to the other, trying to be the master of every game.
Whether some peace could have been preserved, and all wars avoided, if he hadn’t been there is one of these questions that history will never be able to answer.
Perhaps - but perhaps not. There was a powerful breed of nationalist fears and nationalist dreams that might have been beyond the control of anyone.
But there is little doubt that he made things worse. He played on the fears. His was the propaganda of fear and prejudice.
His duel with Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman brought war first to Croatia and then, most fatefully, to Bosnia in 1992. They both tried to carve out their own pieces of that complex country at the centre of the Balkans. More than 100 000 people are likely to have died in the carnage, and millions had to flee their homes.
Once the hounds of war had been unleashed, they were not easy to control. Once started, the Bosnia war went on longer than he wished. But in late 1995 it was brought to its end in Dayton, and there was the possibility of a new start for Serbia. Sanctions were lifted.
But then came Kosovo. It was in reality an Albanian insurrection in 1998 and 1999 that he tried to suppress with a brutality that brought upon him the reaction of the world. Another war, and another loss.
He was brought down by his own exaggerated view of his own position. Somewhat strengthened in relation to the democratic opposition by the 1999 war with NATO over Kosovo, he in 2000 called an election in order to make himself president of Yugoslavia. He was convinced that he would win.
But he lost, and tried to save the situation by falsifying the results, thus causing the popular uproar that on the dramatic October 5th deprived him of his power.
From then on it was all downhill. Within a year he was in The Hague. Even there he has remained chairman of his Socialist Party, but the party has lost a lot of its standing in today’s Serbia.
I saw him for the last time in a corridor in Schveningen a couple of years ago. We just said a few words.
Now he’s dead. He will not get his judgment from the UN tribunal in The Hague.
He will be judged by history. Harshly.
He brought disaster to his own Serbia.