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Milosevic Death Ends Chapter in Troubled Balkans

March 13, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: His legacy is undeniable: Three major Balkan wars in the 1990s, more than 200,000 dead and millions left homeless, in the worst violence Europe had seen since World War II. Slobodan Milosevic’s crusade to restore Serbian greatness took off as Yugoslavia began to crumble in post-communist Eastern Europe. We start with this report by Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News.

JONATHAN MILLER: This is the day in April 1987 that the Belgrade Communist Party chief burst onto the scene. “No one has the right to beat you,” he told Serb villagers in a largely Albanian part of Kosovo. The village name: The Field of Blackbirds, a former battlefield and hearthstone of greater Serbia’s imagined former glories.

“Six centuries on we are again engaged in battle,” Milosevic told a million awestruck Serbs, “although they’re not armed battles…yet,” he said. Naked nationalism from the Balkans’ leading Stalinist, a message heard and understood by Albanians, Croats Muslims; the Serb battle cry was sounded. It lit a fire in Serb hearts right across Yugoslavia and propelled Slobodan Milosevic’s inexorable rise; to president, dictator; to the defiant defendant in the dock charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, to which he’d plead not guilty.

Nationalist fervor spread through the former Yugoslavia, old rivalries revived, but throughout the brutal conflicts first in Croatia, then in Bosnia, Milosevic was careful to keep his own hands clean, his dirty work delegated to those like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his commander, Ratko Mladic, who remain on the run to this day. The Dayton Peace Accord in 1995 did finally stop the Bosnian war. Milosevic reveling in the moment, a man reviled as a monster still posing as peacemaker and statesman.

Then, in 1999, Serb forces once again unleashing terror on Kosovan Albanian civilians, Milosevic insisting he was just defending Serbs. Ignoring NATO’s ultimatum to withdraw, Milosevic opted for all-out confrontation. For three months, air strikes brought fear and suffering to Serbia. Now vanquished, Milosevic had finally overreached himself, losing an election, then facing mass revolt. Six months later he’d be in The Hague.

MARGARET WARNER: Milosevic’s trial for war crimes was entering its fifth year, when he was found dead in his cell this weekend.

For more on Milosevic, we turn to retired Army General Wesley Clark. He dealt extensively with the fallen dictator, before and during the 1995 Bosnian peace accord negotiations in Dayton and as NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe from 1997 to 2000, before and during the Kosovo War. General Clark ultimately testified against Milosevic in The Hague.

General Clark, welcome.

GEN. WESLEY CLARK: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: There have been a lot of ugly epithets used to describe this man: monster, power hungry, the butcher of the Balkans. What’s yours?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, I — petty Hitler is mine.

He was a war criminal. And, yet, we had to deal with him to try to stop greater crime, which was a continuation of conflict in the Balkans.

MARGARET WARNER: He — to the end, even during his trial, he insisted, whatever he had done, he did it simply to defend the poor Serbian people, the poor, victimized Serbian people.

You spent more than 100 hours with this man, over the course of several years. Did you ever come to a conclusion about what drove him? I mean, was it this nationalism? Or was he just power hungry? What was it?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, I think he was ambitious. He was power hungry. He was in — he was on top of a very slippery pyramid.

And he had a lot of enemies out there as well. And, so, in order to survive, at the end, I think it was important for — in his view, to maintain his — his power position.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, did you feel that, deep within, he bought this — I mean, he tapped into Serbian paranoia and all its historical sense of injustice. Do you think he really believed that, or was it hard to tell?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, he always denied that he believed it.

He always claimed that he had Muslim friends and Croatian friends. And he called President Tudjman Franjo, and Alija Izetbegovic. And, I mean, he was adroit in that respect. I think it was naked ambition, really without any principles, other than getting and holding on to power.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you testified at The Hague, you told — you told many tales and stories of when you met with him. But there was one in particular that dates back from ’95, when you became convinced that he, in fact, was responsible for one of the most gruesome massacres, the massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica that year. Tell us about that.

WESLEY CLARK: It was the first meeting we had with him, really.

And I had never met him. And he suggested to Richard Holbrooke — I was sitting next to — to Ambassador Holbrooke, and he suggested to Ambassador Holbrooke — he said, “Let’s just have an election on your peace proposal.” And we said, “An election?”

And he said, “You call a referendum and” — or something like this.

And, so, they began to talk about it. And we said, but we don’t understand why we would have an election in your country. You say your country is different than Bosnia. So, why would people voting in your country then lead to the Bosnian Serbs adopting this peace plan?

He said, they will not disobey the will of Serb people. Well, so, they took a break. Ambassador Holbrooke got up to make a phone call. And Joe Kruzel and I went up to Milosevic.

And we said to him — I said to him: “Mr. President, you — you — you said that these Bosnian Serbs won’t defy the will of the Serb people. And, yet, why would you allow Milosevic to — Mladic to slaughter all these people at Srebrenica?”

He looked at me and he said, “Well, General Clark, you must understand, I told Mladic not to do this, but he didn’t listen to me.”

Well, at that point, I — then, he basically told me he had foreknowledge of the event. And whether he told him not to do it or not was irrelevant.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, he knew that some 7,000 Muslim men and boys were going to be killed.

WESLEY CLARK: That’s what it sounded like to me.

And, of course, they were paying the bill for the Bosnian-Serb military. Mladic was a — he was a Bosnian Serb only in name. He was a Yugoslav general.

MARGARET WARNER: So, when — the next — your next meetings, then, are in the — at the peace negotiations at Dayton to try to settle the Bosnian War.

What was he like then? Was he negotiating in good faith?

WESLEY CLARK: Well, he was negotiating grudgingly. But it was, for him, the least cost way out of a difficult situation.

The Croatian military had gotten a lot stronger. And the United States was asserting itself. And, so, as a tactical move, to preserve the gains he had, he wanted to — to have this agreement. He didn’t intend to go beyond the letter of the agreement, in fact, to do as little as possible to implement the agreement. But it — it — it codified a Republika Srpska. It carved out a Serb portion of Bosnia, which had declared itself an independent country. So, he won in that respect.

MARGARET WARNER: Starting to…

WESLEY CLARK: He blustered.

MARGARET WARNER: … to create his dream…

WESLEY CLARK: He threatened.

MARGARET WARNER: … of this greater Serbia.

WESLEY CLARK: Right.

He blustered. He threatened. He — he joked. He smoked. He had a friend in New Hampshire. And they — they flew in lobsters. And he had the Americans for a big lobster dinner. And I — it — it was a complete “Godfather”-like performance.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now fast-forward, because I know you had some meetings in between. But your next very important meeting, you’re now on the eve of the Kosovo war.

And you have got Kosovo Albanians being forced to flee. Tell us about that.

WESLEY CLARK: In the fall of 1998, as the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo accelerated, there were about 400,000 Albanians who had been driven from their homes in Kosovo.

And, so, NATO finally issued a threat. And Ambassador Holbrooke went in to negotiate. But Milosevic never came up with the right solution. So, Secretary-General Solana and General Klaus Naumann and I went back in once.

I went back in a second time. And I…

MARGARET WARNER: This is a NATO team.

WESLEY CLARK: The NATO team.

And I went back in. And I had the authority from the White House. And I just looked at him, and I said, “Mr. President, if you don’t pull your forces back, NATO, they’re going to tell me to bomb you.”

And I looked him right in the eye. He said, “Well, General Clark, NATO must do what it must be.” I said, “No, Mr. President, you do not want to be bombed by NATO.” He said: “No, you’re right. We will see.”

And, so, he basically conceded some elements of what he wanted to do. We bought a window for diplomacy. The diplomacy didn’t pay off. He talked to the Russians. He made up his mind he could withstand NATO airstrikes. And he gave the go-ahead to start the ethnic cleansing.

MARGARET WARNER: You know, when people talk about him, it’s often mentioned that his father shot himself. Eleven years later, his mother hung herself. His favorite uncle killed himself. And this may be beyond your level of expertise, but, I mean, do you think he was — he was mad?

WESLEY CLARK: Oh, we talked about this is a lot on the delegation.

It may be beyond our level of expertise, but I never considered him suicidal. He was in love with himself and his ideas. He had a tremendous ego, big vanity. I — sure. I mean, I — he probably had insecurities, like everybody else did. But, suicidal, I never saw any indication of it.

MARGARET WARNER: So, in 2003, you go to The Hague to testify against him. It’s closed-door testimony. What was that like? I mean, was he still unrepentant completely?

WESLEY CLARK: Unrepentant, smiling like a Cheshire cat when he saw me. He thought he — he thought he had me.

And I knew how the exchange would go: “General Clark is good man. He is loyal. He is subordinate.” I mean, that’s — he saw me — Ambassador Holbrooke was smart, intelligent, a diplomat, tricky, you know? I was straightforward and not so smart. And he was going to handle me like a cat playing with a squirrel.

MARGARET WARNER: Because he could cross-examine you, because he was acting as his own lawyer.

WESLEY CLARK: Well, that’s what he thought. And he could — he could make speeches about what he wanted.

He was really using the trial not to — not to rebut the points, but to lay out to the Serb people — and it was televised in Belgrade — his view of greater Serbia and his justification, and — and perpetuating the lies that — that motivated and fueled the regime in its rise to power in the first place.

MARGARET WARNER: I know you haven’t been back to the region since then, but what’s your sense of — given the unsettled state of Serbia and Kosovo, even today, politically, the way he died, before a verdict is reached, what’s your sense of the impact?

WESLEY CLARK: It’s a blow to the peace process in the region. There’s just no other way to say it.

We would have advanced the cause of peace if Milosevic had been convicted, and if the Serb people had recognized the judgment of the international community was firm and factual on this. But it didn’t happen. It hasn’t happened.

He will be put in a pantheon of — of tragic Serb heroes by his radical supporters. And, unfortunately, we will have lost a major chance to reverse and — some of the wrongs in Europe.

MARGARET WARNER: General Wesley Clark, thank you.

WESLEY CLARK: Thank you.