It hasn’t taken long, if you count from the first Nato bombing runs on Serbia in March 1999, to deliver Slobodan Milosevic up to The Hague. That’s the jaunty Foreign Office view, at any rate, and typical of Jack Straw, the new man at the helm: it’s all a bit like his asylum legislation – firm and fast, and maybe if Milosevic is very lucky, it’ll be fair. But if you count from the beginning of the wars in Yugoslavia, there’s less to celebrate, even though the West has got its man.

The imputation of ‘war crimes’ has its basis in fact, but also in opinion. And where extravagant kinds of cruelty are at issue – Serbian paramilitary cruelties, for example, or the unsung cruelties of the KLA – opinion runs high. Like war, the ritual vilification of the defeated is the extension of political opinion – in every sense the prevailing opinion – by other means.

One of the problems with intervening has, all along, been the ‘humanitarian’ tag, a fuzzy term that glossed over radical differences of opinion, not only between the warriors of Yugoslavia and politicians in the West, but between the Western media and those same politicians over what was to be done (something, nothing or, perplexingly, a little of both). Humanitarianism in Bosnia meant non-intervention; in Kosovo the opposite.

By its nature, the reporting of the conflicts urged intervention. Year after year, from Dubrovnik to the Drenica Valley, the press screamed blue murder. The politicians and envoys preferred to do nothing, under the guise of something, except on occasions when nothing really did mean nothing, as in Srebrenica. But because the press is the way it is, and because this was a backyard issue for Europeans – some of them, at least – and because the wars were flinging large numbers of refugees into states that didn’t want them, military ‘humanitarianism’ finally had an outing. And now no end of triumphalism is in order: as Milosevic went to the Hague, it was the turn of the British broadsheets to howl ‘Gotcha!’

Humanitarianism is a strange word for what Nato did in Kosovo, and the Serbs know it better than most. It was a tardy swipe at a political system that Western states and institutions had encouraged with their insistence on pitching Yugoslavia’s ailing economy into the ‘world market’, their draconian lending regimes – massive state budget cuts were required under the terms of the IMF stand-by arrangement and the World Bank’s structural adjustment loan of 1990 – their readiness to recognise the secessions and their ability, as the wars developed, to gaze on amenably while thousands of people died.

To create the conditions for national socialism it helps to have a Treaty of Versailles. The murderous style of politics that evolved in the former Yugoslavia – a kind of social nationalism – was greatly assisted by the attentions, and then the negligence, of the free market democracies. There are many versions of Milosevic – the indispensable Balkan broker, the affable Big Man, the racketeer, the saviour of the Serbs and their betrayer, the martyr and the maker of martyrs – but the one to watch when the trial gets going next year is the one who gives us a glimpse of what we’d look like in the dock.

It’s true, of course, that nobody in the West told Milosevic to give the speech in Kosovo Polje twelve years ago that set the tone of Serbian fascism and staked out the terrain – but by the time it’s clear that there’s no going back on Versailles or the multilateral loan packages, it requires a decisive lack of ‘humanitarianism’ on the part of powerful external forces to hold the furies in check. The alternative, as we saw, was to sit around for ten years in a fog of mystification, stressing the ‘complexity’ of the Balkans – a term that Slavoj Žižek rightly regarded as evidence of racist condescension.

What can Milosevic’s lawyers advise, when his time comes, that might undermine the process of The Hague? Quite a lot about the king-makers with their easygoing hands-across-the-sea approach to his ascendancy, and quite a lot about the time-servers – quite a lot, if he wants to air it, on Richard Holbrooke, Douglas Hurd, David Owen. On the UN, which is less a matter of dishing dirt than asking very basic questions, he is in a trickier position. In March 1999, Nato was in breach of international law and until quite recently, Milosevic was a stickler for international law.

But the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is a UN creation and that’s an inconvenience which his opening gambit on 3 July (outright refusal to recognise the proceedings) doesn’t really sort out. It’s not that he’s changed – he never could be doing with the Tribunal (it wasn’t appointed by the General Assembly) – but circumstances have, and insofar as he remains obliged to snub the UN on the grounds that it has set up an ‘illegal organ’, he’ll be pushed to find any existing international legal context that could frame his defiance. Which in turn makes it very hard for him to recover the earlier respectability conferred on him by the presence, in Bosnia especially, of the UN agencies and wooden-rifle troops from the threadbare family of nations. That is ironic: the UN, after all, was his in-situ alibi in the former Yugoslavia, a blowsy, conscience-stricken, deeply ‘humanitarian’ organisation, which sat on its hands during dozens of atrocities.

Milosevic may decide that his best course is to capitalise on the role of the bit-players – Douglas Hurd, as Deputy Chairman of NatWest Markets, for instance, whose company provided Milosevic with the revenue from the privatisation of Serbian telecoms, money which funded his offensive in the villages of Kosovo the following year – and that will be interesting. He’ll also want to make something of the hollowness of victors’ justice, but in the end this is only another serious difference of opinion: the trial, for all its likely shortcomings, could also be said to stand for the reasonable principle that phalangism, and black shirts, and death squads, and ‘tigers’ of this or that national or pan-ethnic persuasion, are things of the past. What it won’t do, but should, is to ask whether anyone other than the leaders and paramilitaries of the former Yugoslavia should bear the blame for what happened.

The other question is whether Milosevic’s trial will bring us any closer to the day when an International Criminal Court can arrange for the appearance of Henry Kissinger, say, or Jonas Savimbi, or Ariel Sharon, after drawing up the rather straightforward indictments in each case. That’s interesting, too. Indeed, it’s one of the big questions. It can be put in order to discredit the process in The Hague, but that would be hugely unhelpful. Better to ask it in a spirit of open inquiry, unpatrolled by the constraints of ‘realism’, and to ask it of Milosevic’s steeliest detractors.

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