bosnia report
New Series No: 51-52 April - July 2006
Collective denial
by Sonja Biserko

Slobodan Milošević’s death was an important catalyst for the spiritual state of Serbia. The behaviour of Koštunica’s government illustrated clearly how his policy and ideology were bound up with sympathy for Milošević’s regime, and simultaneously how he depended upon on SPS support and was disinclined to distance himself from Milošević’s policy. The reactions [to Milošević’s death], however, reflected something even deeper, namely an essential attitude to a programme that had once enjoyed plebiscitary support, including from Koštunica and his coalition partners. Serbia was taking leave of a man whom it both adored and hated, because it expected him to achieve the impossible. All individual and collective fantasies were transposed onto the state, i.e. him. Such repudiation of personal responsibility meant that all values and criteria were lost, leading inevitably to a relativization of the difference between good and evil. This is why Milošević’s departure to The Hague, where over the four years of his trial the policy that had ended in crime was laid bare, provoked a defence mechanism from practically the whole nation - a collective denial. His death showed this most clearly. The irresponsible conscience seeks to find peace through a new model of intolerance - in this case through a simplified and one-sided interpretation of Milošević and his epoch.

Logical end

Milošević’s behaviour during the trial at The Hague indicates that his end, such as it was, was logical. Having failed to demean and discredit the court with his defence strategy, it seems that he transferred the responsibility for his death to the international community by ‘organizing his own death’. Reports published after his death have led to the conclusion that he himself and his circle ‘caused complications of his cardio-vascular complaint, spread evidently false information about wrong treatment, put pressure on the human emotions of progressive and reactionary public opinion alike’; also that ‘Milošević, fearing retribution, play-acted, play-acted, and eventually went too far in his play-acting.’1 The former US embassador to Belgrade, William Montgomery, offered a similar thesis. ‘I am convinced that Milošević believed the worst possible alternative was for the trial to end with the inevitable verdict of guilty and a lifelong prison sentence served far away from home and out of the public eye. His widow, Mira Marković, in fact foresaw his death at our meeting at my Belgrade residence in 2003'.2 Metropolitan Amfilohije begged Milošević, while the latter was still in the Belgrade central prison, to commit suicide before being delivered to The Hague. His death was thus invoked and advocated by radical and ‘sincere’ Serb nationalists, all in the name of the national interest.

Their attitude, as well as that of society as a whole, towards Milošević’s death was highly ambivalent in regard to both form and substance. The strongest reaction was a general relief that death had arrived before the verdict. The trial was inexorably drawing to a close and Milošević had long ago lost the battle. His defence had been unconvincing and unprofessional. He opted for a political defence, which found an echo only in Serbia and in anti-globalist circles internationally. One of his numerous attorneys and legal experts, Toma Fila, described this in the following manner: ‘What happened at Milošević’s trial has no procedural value, and the presentation of evidence will have to be repeated for every new case.’3 Milošević’s wife, Mirjana Marković, said among other things that The Hague ‘found itself in trouble, so they decided it would be best if he were to cease to exist’, because in their view this would be an ‘elegant solution’.4

Serb nationalists, on the other hand, have used his death as a stimulus to reinforce their anti-Hague campaign, raising doubts about the position of Serbs in The Hague, and above all about the delivery of Ratko Mladić.5 Numerous ‘patriotic media’ appeared on the morrow with headlines that relied maximally on the suspicion, skilfully launched in Belgrade, that he had been deliberately poisoned, because the tribunal had found itself at a dead end thanks to the allegedly insufficient evidence against Milošević.

The media played a special role in creating the atmosphere, by portraying Milošević as a statesman and former Yugoslav president and paying scant attention to the victims of his policy, whether in neighbouring countries or in Serbia itself. They described him as a hero, a man of certain qualities, and a historic personality. The tabloids and the pro-government media wrote in the same vein, while the electronic media broadcast live the arrival of his coffin at the Surćin airport, its display at the Museum of the Revolution, the leave-taking in front of the federal assembly, and finally the burial in Požarevac. Those who reflected seriously on his life got very little media space.

The media intimated for days that Milošević had been murdered in The Hague, with front pages dominated by headlines such as: ‘Murdered!’ (Kurir), ‘He was about to beat the tribunal’ (Kurir), ‘Dačić: Milošević was killed’ (Politika), ‘The Hague tribunal killed him’ (Večernje novosti), ‘Milošević was poisoned’ (Glas javnosti), ‘The Hague has killed Milošević’ (Glas javnosti). Commentators wrote that: ‘The Hague has netted its greatest victim to date - and a possible "coup de grace" for justification of its continued existence.’6

Under pressure from on the one hand pro-European Serbia and Europe, on the other from the Serbian majority, frustrated and frightened of the responsibility awaiting it, the government chose a middle course: it did not take part in the funeral ceremony, but supplied the necessary logistical support. Milošević, in other words, had a para-state funeral. Not just because his Socialist Party supports the minority Koštunica government, but also because of the latter’s general ambivalence in regard to Milošević’s life and deeds.

Symbolic display

Milošević’s coffin was displayed at the Museum of the Revolution, which in itself was symbolic, given that the museum signifies the ‘second’ Yugoslavia which he had destroyed. It is not accidental that they tied him to that symbol, because they wished to see him off as a Communist, implying that the Communists were responsible for the war and the war crimes. The lord of destruction was mourned and buried in the absence of his family, state honours and state representatives, under a lime tree - ‘like a canary’ - in the garden in front of his wife’s family house in Požarevac. He left to Serbia an inheritance of poverty, crime, corruption and lawlessness.7 He turned Serbia into a prison, not just because of sanctions, but also because of the nefarious brainwashing conducted over nearly two decades.

The ‘distasteful amateur performance’8 in Požarevac was coordinated by his family from Moscow, through Milorad Vučelić, a pretender to the post of Milošević’s successor in the Socialist Party. Letters from his son Marko9 and wife Mirjana10 were read over the grave, while his daughter Marija sent a message from Montenegro asking that her father be buried in his home town of Lijeva Rijeka.11 The Russian general Leonid Ivashov, another actor in the family’s play, declared over the grave that he held in his hands the great heart that had been in the prison cell, a gift from his wife Mirjana. ‘I have brought it from Moscow at their request and now lower it into this holy grave. Farewell you great Slav, farewell Soldier Slobodan.’12 The funeral was attended only by those invited by the family: his party comrades (but not all); the Radicals as the closest party; retired generals; several individuals indicted by The Hague; numerous - mainly Russian - Communists from the East, such as Genady Zyuganov ; Ramsey Clarke and Peter Handke; as well as close relatives and neighbours. He was buried to the strains of the Russian songs ‘Moscow Nights’ and ‘Ryabinushka’.

Comments by prominent personalities and politicians kept to the framework set out by prime minister Vojislav Koštunica and Patriarch Paul - that his death should not be used to reflect upon his inheritance. Koštunica declared: ‘it is customary among our people that at such moments political and all other differences are set aside’.13 Patriarch Paul’s message was: ‘We expect the state organs and the whole of our people to behave in accordance with their responsibility before God, history and the tragic end of Milošević’s earthly existence’; and that everyone had an ‘inalienable right to a grave and a dignified burial, especially people like Slobodan Milošević, who have marked their period and fateful events in the life of both the Serb and other peoples in this confusing epoch.’14

Accusations of murder

The family and close collaborators repeated the thesis that he had been murdered. His wife Mirjana Marković stated, for example, that ‘the Tribunal has killed [her] husband’15, while the funeral-ceremony supremo Milorad Vučelić said: ‘this is a great tragedy for the Serb people, the Milošević family, the SPS and all genuine patriots and people of good will in Serbia’16. Milošević’s adviser Zdenko Tomanović ‘revealed’ that ‘Milošević told [him] that they tried to poison him in prison’17, and former federal prime minister Momir Bulatović described his feeling that Milošević ‘seemed to know what would happen to him. I think he sensed the end was near. I too somehow felt that I would never see him again.’18

The Radicals, Serbia’s strongest party, used Milošević’s death to discredit the Tribunal in the public eye, stating that: ‘The Hague tribunal has killed Slobodan Milošević with the aid of its local satraps’, and that: ‘the Tribunal’s prosecution and fake judges bear the greatest responsibility for his death’. Consequently the Radicals would henceforth not allow the maltreatment of the families of Serb patriots ‘as practised up to now by Boris Tadić, Vuk Drašković and the Serbian government leaders, as well as the foreign media agents in our land’.19 Tomislav Nikolić ominously announced that Milošević’s death ‘opens the question of other tragic deaths at the Hague tribunal’, as well as ‘the question of cooperation at all costs’.20 He also displayed his concern for the fate of his leader, Vojislav Š ešelj, because ‘they’ did not want him ‘to receive his sentence alive’.21 Such declarations and speculation that Milošević was poisoned in his prison cell led Hague prisoners of all nationalities to demand that a special commission investigate their living conditions and quality of health care. They asked the Security Council to form an independent expert commission to oversee their stay in Sheveningen, ‘because they did not feel safe following Slobodan Milošević’s death’.22

Reactions came too from those who were, in reality, the true ideologues of Milošević’s project, some of whom had even testified for the defence at The Hague. That is not surprising, given that they have never given up their beliefs. For them, the international community is exclusively responsible for both the break-up of Yugoslavia and Milošević’s death. Mihajlo Marković, the academician and chief ideologue of the SPS, insisted that ‘this is yet another proof that The Hague is not a legal but a political institution’.23 Professor Smilja Avramov, the greatest advocate of the conspiracy theory, said: ‘This is not a tribunal, but a morgue! This is a place where Serbs get killed. Milošević is the sixth Serb to have met his death in this court.’24 Čedomir Popov, the academician and historian, was much saddened by Milošević’s death, because ‘such a great historical personality has departed in an unworthy manner, which he did not deserve’. They hope that history will judge Milošević and Serbia differently. Popov is thus convinced that ‘those responsible for Milosević’s death will be identified by history, and by that part of the Serb nation which has not lost a sense of national interest and dignity.’25

By contrast, the chief initiator of the Serb national project and the symbol of the anti-European orientation, Dobrica Ćosić, has shown no desire to comment on Milošević’s death. ‘Believe me, I am ill and cannot tell you anything. I have heard that Slobodan Milošević has died, but cannot talk.’26 However, in his last public statement, in the New Year issue of NIN, he said: ‘Now that Milošević finds himself behind Schengen bars and is being tried by the Hague tribunal, a political court that is not a court of truth and justice, I refuse to speak about Slobodan Milošević’s policy.’27

The part of the political elite that advocates integration into Europe has attempted to relativize the attitude of the establishment and the public towards Milošević. The president of the union of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marović, made a vague statement: ‘The news of a man’s death is always sad news. Especially when it is a news about the death of a sick man in prison, who had sought help.’28 Vuk Drašković was the only minister who commented on the nature of Milošević’s regime: ‘I feel ashamed of the reaction in Serbia to Milošević’s death. The mourning on the part of his followers for a man who was responsible for countless crimes, and who personally ordered many murders, takes the form of exalting the dead man and his policy, which produced only death, tragedy and hatred.’29 As a promoter of the pro-European orientation in the government, Drašković took the opportunity to appeal to the world at large for Serbia to be promptly received into the EU and NATO.

Russian and Western reactions

The reactions of official and unofficial Russia were as expected. Serbia and Milošević’s death were once again used by Russia to attack the treatment of Milošević and his role in the West. Reactions in Belgrade, especially by people close to him, showed how much Milošević and many others had relied on Russia. The speculation that Milošević might eventually be buried in Moscow soon disappeared, however. The Russian ministry of foreign affairs limited itself to criticizing The Hague tribunal, especially because, they stressed, ‘it failed to allow Milošević to go to Russia for health treatment, despite all the guarantees’.30 The Russian Duma, for its part, voted unanimously (437 votes) for a resolution according to which ‘the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has failed to fulfil the idea behind its creation’. It demanded that the investigation of all cases before the Tribunal be stopped, because the court decisions are ‘characterized by a degree of politicization and a lack of objectivity’.31

In their first reactions to Milošević’s death, Western officials by and large declared that Serbia should now break fully with the past and turn to the future, as well as continuing to cooperate with The Hague. Javier Solana expressed a hope that the event would ‘definitively turn Serbia and Montenegro towards the future’.32 Condoleezza Rice declared that Milošević ‘has for some time been one of the most demonic forces in Europe. Milošević is undoubtedly responsible for [the death] of many, many people, and for a policy that led to the country’s break-up’.33 CNN summed up such reactions in a single phrase: ‘Milošević - architect of the Balkan slaughter’.34 Richard Holbrooke, the creator of the Dayton agreement, stated: ‘Justice has been done. He (Milošević) is a monster who started four wars and spent his last five years in prison, which was a rightful punishment.’35 The Croatian president, Stjepan Mesić, and other politicians in the region largely agreed that: ‘it is a pity that the trial could not be completed and he not be punished as he deserved’.36

Milošević’s death was a great blow for the Hague tribunal, because within a week it had lost its main defendant, Slobodan Milošević, and its key witness, Milan Babić. This is a great source of frustration, moral and intellectual, for the people who were working on the case, not to speak of the effort and time invested. Carla del Ponte stated in response to Milošević’s death that ‘she [was] sorry because of all the victims and survivors who expected to see justice done.’37 As was to be expected, she was soon exerting additional pressure on the Serbian government to deliver Ratko Mladić.

Our domestic analysts were keen, in particular, to present the Tribunal as irrelevant. In this vein Bratislav Grubačić, director of the VIP bulletin, said that ‘this is very bad for The Hague’, because it was an open question whether the Tribunal would continue its work, and it was difficult to expect that ‘people would now decide to surrender voluntarily’.38 According to many analysts, Milošević’s death and the suspension of the case against him have also dealt a serious blow to the lawsuits initiated by Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia before the International Court of Justice. If Milošević had been found guilty of genocide, this would have greatly strengthened their positions. This thesis is particularly widely supported in Serbia. Tibor Varadi, expert adviser to the Serbia-Montenegro team [at the ICJ}, insists that the death of Milošević has placed Bosnia-Herzegovina in an even more difficult position, since if the Hague tribunal had established his guilt ‘the International Court of Justice could eventually have taken that decision into account. The prosecutor has been left without a possible support.’39

A lesser number of politicians and public personalities belonging to Serbia’s younger generation - which, within the country, paid the greatest cost of Milošević’s adventure - reacted rationally and unemotionally to Milošević’s death. They have a strong understanding of his destructiveness, from which they instinctively defended themselves as a way of surviving as individuals. Bojan Kostreš, president of the Vojvodina assembly, honoured not Milošević but his victims Zoran Đinđić, Ivan Stambolić and Veselin Bošković, whom he took as symbols of ‘the victimization and suffering of all those who here and in the region suffered as a result of that man’s rule’. For the film director Gorčin Stojanović, ‘Slobodan Milošević was the personification of a way of thinking, an amalgam of stupidity, limitation, primitivism, backwardness - which under certain conditions turns into evil.’ In his view, however, all that Milošević stood for ‘still remains present in Serbia’. 40 The writer Marko Vidojković said that he was not sorry that Milošević had died, because that would be ‘the same as mourning Hitler’s death’, but that it would have been better for Serbia and its health if he had faced the verdict.41 Čedomir Jovanović, president of Serbia’s youngest party, the LDP, stated that it was ‘unacceptable to treat Milošević as a statesman’, because his death ‘cannot excuse either him or his policy’. Slobodan Milošević was ‘the greatest and most costly mistake of contemporary Serbia, and the greatest delusion that we experience today’.42

Milošević and the Serbian elite

For Serbian society, the question of whether Milošević would have been possible without the atmosphere created over years by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Science, the Writers’ Association, the political and military elite, assisted by the media and the Serbian Orthodox Church - that question remains open. Milošević was only an expression of the will of the Serbian elite, which in choosing him showed an essential lack of understanding of the period and the dominant trends in Europe and the world. This elite has apparently already ‘cemented’ its interpretation of recent history. This is perhaps best formulated by Dobrica Cosić as his testament to the Serb people: ‘The wars in the Balkans at the end of the 20th century were nothing but the final shards of World War II and the beginnings of a new war against Europe - in which Europe itself, through the NATO aggression against Serbia, unfortunately took part. The perpetrators are the same and the victims are the same.’43 Milošević’s death has served precisely this cause.

The indictment of Slobodan Milošević in 1999 de-legitimized him as a political actor and contributed to his fall in 2000. His departure for The Hague, on the other hand, opened the political space for Zoran Đinđić’s reform government. Regardless of the absence of a verdict, a ‘legal inheritance’ has been left behind, composed of an enormous documentation collected over four years which otherwise might not have been uncovered. This collection of documents will be used in other cases - those of Ratko Mladić, Radovan Karadžić and many other military and police officers, for instance.

Serbia is faced with a long period of re-examination and investigation of the causes that led to adoption of that political project with all its fatal consequences: undetermined borders, self-isolation, a devastated society, and a great loss of human potential.

As a particular phenomenon of the late 20th century, Milošević will long remain a subject of study and argument, not only for his followers and contemporaries, but also for researchers and historians in Serbia and the outside world. Milošević did not stand a chance of defeating the Hague tribunal, which makes the nature of his end somehow logical. It is far worse for Serbia that he died without a verdict, since that in itself could have provided a point of departure for internal differentiation.

Translated from Helsinška povelja (Belgrade), no. 93-94, March-April 2006



1. Jurij Bogomolov, ‘He played too hard’, Danas, 16 March.2006, taken from Ruske novosti

2. William Montgomery, ‘My last memory of Slobodan Milošević’, Danas, 18-19 March 2006

3. Blic, 14 March 2006

4. Mirjana Marković, ‘I want to bring him back home’, Večernje novosti, 13 March 2006.

5. The retired general Ninoslav Krstić, director of the NGO Forum for Security and Democracy, stated that it would ‘be better for General Mladić to die here among us ... I cannot see how the government would now be able to surrender anyone voluntarily, given that Serbs either die or kill themselves there.’ Quoted in ‘Cijanid!’, Press, 20 April 2006.

6. Kurir, ‘Sloba’s gone’, 12 March 2006.

7. Dimitrije Boarov, ‘From myth to abyss’ , Danas, 13 March 2006. ‘In all of Serbia’s history no one but Milošević and his followers were able to so quickly, within a few years, to impoverish Serbia, destroy its social system and all its economic institutions, criminalize the whole financial and foreign-trade sphere, bring the Serbian peasantry to the edge of starvation, the pensioners to suicidal dismay and drive the workers into the grey economy.’

8. Danas, 20 March 2006.

9. Taking leave of his father, Marko said: ‘Let freedom and peace replace violence... and the persecution and degradation that rule. Traitors and cowards justify the betrayal of the fatherland by national interest. Patriots and heroes die for it as you have. To die for the fatherland is to live. Papa, when your heart no longer beats, my own counts the moments. Be finally tranquil and free, you have come home. Here you will be with us forever. Though your heart no longer functions, we shall give you ours to be with you forever.’ Danas, 20 March 2004.

10. Mirjana wrote: ‘I am not with you, in our country in our land. The evil-doers who killed you in the Hague prison want my head, and maybe the heads of our children too. You were killed by evil-doers who were stripped of the privileges acquired through the labours of others by the realization of our ideals ... I shall remain where you left me. ... I waited for you for five long, hard, terrible Hague years, but now you are gone. It is now your turn to wait for me.’ Danas, ibid.

11. In Marija’s judgement, the funeral was ‘scandalous’: nowhere in the world ‘do people get buried in their gardens’. Večernje novosti, 20.March 2006.

12. Danas, 20 March 2006.

13. Balkan ekspres, 12 March 2006.

14. Politika, 15 March 2006.

15. Balkan ekspres, 12 March 2006.

16. Balkan ekspres, ibid

17. Press, 12 March 2006.

18. Press, ibid.

19. Press, ibid

20. Glas javnosti, 12 March 2006.

21. Kurir, 13 March 2006.

22. Politika, 15 March 2006

23. Večernje novosti, 12 March 2006

24. Kurir, 13 March 2006

25. Večernje novosti, 13 March 2006.

26. Glas javnosti, 12 March 2006

27. Dobrica Ćosić, ‘It is time for the peoples of the former SFRJ to be themselves again’, NIN, 29 December 2005.

28. Balkan ekspres, 12 March 2006.

29. Balkan ekspres, 13 March 2006.

30. Kurir, 12 March 2006

31. Danas, ‘A superfluous tribunal’, 16 March.2006.

32. Balkan ekspres, 12 May.2006.

33. Danas, 13 March 2006.

34. Večernje novosti, 12 March 2006.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Balkan ekspres, 12 March 2006.

38. Press, 12 March 2006

39. Press, 13 March 2006

40. Danas, 13 March 2006.

41. Ibid.

42 Čedomir Jovanović, ‘It should be Serbia’s political verdict’, Danas, 14 March 2006.

43. Judith Armatta and Edgar Chen, ‘Was justice ever served?’,




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