When Slobodan Milosevic began his rise, Yugoslavia was the freest, most prosperous country in Eastern Europe. Before he was through, his homeland was a smoking ruin, sacrificed in the name of feeding his insatiable craving for power. As the Berlin wall came down, he morphed from a communist into a hard-line Serbian nationalist. In the next decade he launched four disastrous Balkan wars, killing 250,000 people, leaving 2.5 million homeless. He reduced his native republic, Serbia, to one of the poorest nations in Europe. Then he called elections and lost so badly that the new government soon sent him to The Hague, where he became the world's first head of state to stand trial for war crimes, on 66 counts including genocide and crimes against humanity.
Milosevic was a spoiler to the end, dying in custody last week at 64 with no formal verdict. He couldn't have scripted his exit better if he had killed himself, the way his own parents did when he was a child. Officials at The Hague say there are no suspicions of foul play in his death. The prisoner was known to be suffering from high blood pressure and heart trouble, and an autopsy was in progress late Saturday.
By the time he died, he had dragged out his trial for four years, with possibly another to go. He would surely have been convicted; there was little doubt of that anywhere outside Serbia, where his countrymen are continuing to deny his responsibility--and their own--for Europe's most vicious bloodbath since World War II. "He will be declared innocent [in Serbia] for the crimes that he had been accused of," says Belgrade human-rights activist Miljenko Dereta. The country's strongest political entity today, the Serbian Radical Party, is more rabidly nationalist than Milosevic ever was. His countrymen hate the United Nations' war-crimes tribunal so much that they would almost surely topple their current government if it obeyed international demands to hand over the fugitive general who is accused of organizing the genocide in Bosnia, Ratko Mladic, who has been openly hiding in Serbia.
With his death, Milosevic has only worsened Serbs' distrust of the outside world. In Serbia, news of Milosevic's death was greeted with widespread declarations that he was murdered. That convenient fiction fits perfectly with the international-conspiracy theories used by Serb nationalists to explain away the ethnic cleansing, the death camps and rape hotels, the slaughter of all the males of Srebrenica and a thousand other atrocities.
He died a despised man. Even many Serbs condemned him for losing Bosnia and Serbia's own province of Kosovo, which they hold sacred as their nation's birthplace. His onetime best friend, the mentor who helped him win his first Communist Party leadership bid, was Ivan Stambolic. Milosevic had him assassinated in 2000 by secret police who snatched Stambolic while he was out jogging. Milosevic's wife, Mirjana, reacted bitterly to the news of her husband's death. She asked The Hague to send his corpse to Moscow, where she now lives. Back home in Serbia she's facing charges of corruption and murder. The "Butcher of the Balkans" will be laid to rest far from the scenes of his many crimes.