Serbian Leader Lauds U.S. for Avoiding Armed Role

The Washington Post
April 6, 1993

BELGRADE – Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic today expressed satisfaction with the Clinton administration’s policy on the war in neighboring Bosnia, saying he believes the White House will steer clear of forceful measures against the Bosnian Serb faction in the three-sided conflict.

“I appreciate very much that the U.S. will not be the world policeman, to put everything in order in {its} own view,” Milosevic said in an interview. Unlike the previous U.S. administration, he said, “this administration is oriented to the essential problems of the United States . . . {and} will not try to hide internal problems by opening international problems.”

The Clinton administration has portrayed its Balkan policy — centered on tough sanctions designed to encourage the Bosnian Serbs and their ultranationalist patrons in Belgrade to accept a compromise peace plan — as perhaps the most forceful means of ending the war short of military intervention. But here in Belgrade, capital of both Serbia and the new Yugoslav state it controls, it is viewed as blessedly soft, allowing Serb militias to hold on to the 70 percent of Bosnia they now control without fear that the United States and its Western allies will use military force against them.

Milosevic, citing Washington’s desire to find a negotiated solution acceptable to Bosnia’s warring Serbs, Slavic Muslims and Croats, said President Clinton has “encouraged every person here,” and he indicated his belief that Washington’s focus on finding a “durable” peace means that the demands of the Bosnian Serbs will be met.

Even so, he denounced U.N. trade sanctions against Serbia and its satellite in the new Yugoslav state, Montenegro, saying the two republics were becoming an economic “concentration camp.” And he gave no indication that he would use his considerable influence to change the minds of Bosnian Serb leaders who refused this weekend to accept an international peace plan requiring their forces to return some occupied territory to Muslim or Croat control.

Milosevic, who has been widely accused of fomenting the war in Bosnia and of arming Serb forces there, appeared relaxed, giving no hint he was particularly nervous about the threat of further sanctions or the disintegrating Serbian economy, ravaged by hyperinflation that is galloping at a rate of more than 2000 percent a month. Dressed in a double-breasted suit, he smoked thin Dutch cigars that he acknowledged had been smuggled into Belgrade.

“You know very well that in history there are no sanctions that can hold,” he said, speaking English.

Although the Milosevic government’s support for Serb aggression in Bosnia is the focus of U.N. condemnation, there was no sign of panic or distress at his office in central Belgrade. When a small tape recorder in a visiting journalist’s pocket set off a metal detector at the entrance, a guards asked jokingly, “Any guns?” and waved the visitor through.

Milosevic, the last old-style Marxist strongman in Europe, is known to dislike having aides in close attendance, and there was not a single adviser, note taker or security guard in the spacious office. It is sparsely decorated, with a communist red star topping a gold-painted presidential crest above his desk and seven oil paintings on the walls. Asked why he chose the paintings, Milosevic pointed to a landscape and said the Serb who painted it was killed by Croatian fascists during World War II.

A onetime Communist Party functionary who exploited strident nationalism to hold onto power, Milosevic has been described as the “slickest conman in the Balkans” by the last American ambassador here, Warren Zimmerman. He is courteous and does not raise his voice, even when describing Zimmerman and other Washington critics as “useless bureaucrats” or when responding to charges that he is a war criminal.

“Those are . . . dirty accusations without any evidence,” he said, adding: “I think that it is the duty of any civilized country in our international community to punish war criminals.”

The war crimes issue has gained world prominence because Bosnian Serb forces, in particular, are accused of perpetrating atrocities on Muslims and Croats, including mass killings, torture and rapes and of using terror tactics to drive non Serbs from lands they control — the notorious practice of “ethnic cleansing.” Many Western diplomats and human rights activists hold Milosevic politically responsible for these alleged crimes because they view him as the chief agent behind the Bosnian Serb campaign of aggrandizement.

Thus, Milosevic’s portrayal of events in the Balkans is starkly at odds with accounts of human rights investigators and Western diplomats. He contends that the Serbs have not engaged in ethnic cleansing and that the war began because Bosnia’s Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, wanted to set up an Islamic republic in league with Serbia’s historic enemy, Turkey — a charge Western goverments have dismissed.

“You know what Turkish authorities said? ‘A new Ottoman Empire again, from the Chinese Wall to the Adriatic coast,’ ” Milosevic declared. Asked which Turkish authorities he was quoting, Milosevic replied: “Oh, they said that. Please check that in your eminent institution in Washington. I think {Turkish President Turgut} Ozal said that many times.”

It was a common thread through the 90-minute interview — the indefatigable Serb notion of enduring victimization. According to Milosevic — and the newspapers, politicians and generals who support him — the Serbs are struggling to fight off a multi-pronged offensive; leading the charge, they say, are the Turks, who dominated the Balkans for centuries, and the Germans, against whom Serbia fought in two world wars. Now history is being repeated, he said. “There is a campaign in the whole media to define Serbs as terrorists, killers, murderers,” he said. “It is a very distorted picture. . . . We are doing our best to support peace.”

The interview came to an end with Milosevic, a warmonger to much of the West, offering a much less menacing description of himself. He is the son of Montenegrin parents who moved here before he was born, but he is heart and soul a Serb, he said. “I am one of the normal, simple citizens of Serbia. I don’t believe I am something extraordinary, compared to the other citizens.”

Photo of Slobodan Milosevic by Darko Vojinovic

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.