Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav leader whose sinister nationalism propelled his country into four wars and unleashed a decade of "ethnic cleansing" that cost more than 250,000 lives, was found dead in his prison cell yesterday in The Hague, where he was on trial for crimes against humanity.
Guards found Milosevic, 64, dead in his bed at the United Nations detention center, the U.N. war crimes tribunal announced. He apparently died of natural causes. An autopsy was ordered. Milosevic had a history of poor health, including high blood pressure and a chronic heart condition. His four-year trial on genocide and other charges was often interrupted by his illnesses.
Leaders in the region and in Western Europe immediately expressed regret that he would never be convicted for his role in the disintegration of Yugoslavia and in the four wars in the region during the 1990s. The death also presented a profound setback to U.N. prosecutors and scholars who have sought to put together a definitive account of the wars.
Milosevic had been in poor health for years, and his heart condition and high blood pressure repeatedly caused lengthy delays in his trial on charges of genocide and war crimes in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. He refused to enter any plea, and he insisted on acting as his own lawyer, only later accepting any help from his court-appointed lawyers and often clashing with their advice.
His trial, which has continued in fits and starts since it began in February 2002, recessed last week while the court weighed whether to grant his request to subpoena former President Bill Clinton as a witness.
Milosevic had complained in recent weeks that his health was worsening, and he pressed the court to allow him to seek treatment at the Bakoulev Scientific Center for Cardiovascular Surgery in Moscow, where his wife and son live. But the court denied his request, saying there was no reason that Russian doctors could not come to The Hague to treat him - a decision the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized yesterday after Milosevic's death.
Milosevic orchestrated violent campaigns throughout the 1990s that scattered millions of refugees across the continent. His rule ended in disgrace in 2001 when police stormed his presidential villa and led him to a Belgrade jail.
Instead of delivering his people to international prominence, Milosevic's 13 years in power led to a shrunken and bankrupt state.
The passions exploited by Milosevic and the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman spawned armies and paramilitary murder squads. The boundaries of Europe were redrawn as new nations, such as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, along with a NATO-occupied Kosovo province, rose unsteadily from the turmoil.
The silver-haired Milosevic was defiant and arrogant, frustrating a parade of U.S. and European diplomats by making promises he often broke. Former U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann once called Milosevic "the slickest con man in the Balkans."
During his final years in prison, his outbursts at The Hague flickered across TV screens in bars and taverns throughout Belgrade. He saw himself as a tragic hero in the mold of the Christian Serbian warriors defeated by Islamic armies of the Ottoman Empire in the 1300s. He asserted that he was the victim of a conspiracy led by the United States and Europe to keep Serbs from realizing their greatness.
From the Adriatic Sea to Sarajevo, Milosevic's nationalist zeal turned villages and cities into haunted killing grounds, such as in Srebrenica, where 7,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995 by Bosnian Serb fighters whom Milosevic supported. Four years later, his security forces in Kosovo killed thousands of ethnic Albanians, and in a matter of weeks forced 800,000 people into exile in a crisis that led to 11 weeks of NATO bombing before Milosevic surrendered.
When asked about Serbian military actions during the Kosovo war, Milosevic told an interviewer: "We are not angels. Nor are we the devils you have made us out to be."
Milosevic's control of the army and state security police kept him in power. Opposition voices were stifled through purges and intimidation. Milosevic had a keen sense of detecting the weaknesses of his rivals - including Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated while Milosevic was in The Hague - and he split the opposition by playing one personality off another. He outlasted weeks of rallies by 100,000 protesters in the winter of 1996.
Fall from power
His political astuteness, however, eluded him in September 2000 when he made the miscalculation of his career by calling early elections. Defeated by moderate nationalist Vojislav Kostunica, Milosevic refused to step down as Yugoslav president.