I always remember my first visit to Belgrade, in the summer of 1998. As an unreconstructed socialist, completely out of step with the spirit of the age, I had spent most of the Nineties trying to escape, as best I could, to a place where it was still 1948. So imagine my delight when I arrived in Belgrade and found a city that seemed miraculously to have escaped all the horrors of global grunge. Bookshops, self-service restaurants and state-owned department stores abounded: a walk down the city boulevards reminded one of a British high street in the late Sixties. My delight turned to ecstasy when, on entering a state-owned bookshop, I saw on prominent display in the window a copy of that classic tome Arguments for Socialism by Tony Benn. What a truly wonderful place was Belgrade! Yet here I was, in the capital city of a nation commonly regarded as the 'pariah' state of Europe and whose leader - a certain Slobodan Milosevic - was routinely dismissed in the western media as Europe's Saddam Hussein. Four years on, the same Slobodan Milosevic languishes in a cell awaiting trial on charges of war crimes and genocide. While opposition to the treatment of the al-Qaeda prisoners has been widespread and vociferous, few have protested about the treatment handed out to a man who, less than 18 months ago, was president of a European nation. Yet the way Milosevic has been dealt with is, in many ways, as great a scandal as the blindfolds and handcuffs at Camp X-Ray. For a start, it is still unclear what the former Yugoslav leader is actually charged with, even though he has been deprived of his liberty for more than ten months now. The original war crimes indictment, served on Milosevic in June 1999 at the height of the Kosovo war, covered vague charges relating to the war in Kosovo. The UN's chief war crimes prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, has sought to submerge these charges into a 'unified' indictment, widened to include charges relating to the war in Bosnia and also to campaigns in Croatia. At least, that was the position up until very recently. Now, it seems, due to problems with 'collecting evidence', the trial date of 12 February is likely to be put back once more. As if the nebulous nature of these charges were not scandalous enough, there are also the day-to-day infringements of Milosevic's basic human rights to consider. On the pretext of preventing a suicide attempt, Milosevic is under 24-hour video surveillance in his cell. He is denied access to the counsel of his choice, his mail is strictly censored and he is prevented from speaking to the world's media. Yet despite these violations, Amnesty International, normally so vocal in its defence of 'political prisoners', has yet to utter so much as a murmur. The problem is that the demonisation campaign against Milosevic has been so thorough and unrelenting and, for most, Slobo is already guilty as charged. Milosevic, we have learnt from the western media, is a rabid Serb nationalist who whipped up dormant ethnic tensions to plunge the whole region into war and, in the process, had thousands of innocent people deported or killed. But let us look beyond this CNN view of world history. Slobodan Milosevic, a lifelong socialist, never once made a racist speech. When faced with the incessant violence of western-trained separatist groups, he had little option but to use military means to try to prevent the break-up of his country and to defend the Serbian and Roma people from being driven out of the lands they had inhabited for centuries. Ironically, although the Yugoslav Socialist Party leader had no shortage of 'right-wing' enemies (Lady Thatcher, for one), it has been representatives of the liberal left, in the United States, Britain and Europe, who have hounded him most mercilessly. Back in 1999, it was Auberon Waugh who memorably coined the phrase 'Blair-Toynbee axis' to describe the unedifying enthusiasm for the bombing of Yugoslavia from new Labour and its supporters in the British media. Then ministers such as Robin Cook and Derek Fatchett who, less than 20 years earlier, had been on Ban the Bomb marches now climbed into jump jets and addressed military press conferences, while Clare Short defended the killing of cleaners and make-up girls at the Yugoslav state television station by Nato bombs. How are we to explain this? The trouble with Slobo is not that he is an 'ethnic cleanser' (three years after the original indictment, we have yet to see the evidence linking Milosevic to atrocities in Bosnia), but that he is stubbornly and cussedly an 'old', unreconstructed socialist. This is why the new designer 'left' parties of Europe have pursued him so mercilessly to The Hague. Slobo is exactly the kind of old-style eastern European leader many of them would have defended in their student days. Ironically, it is still acceptable in politically correct circles to praise Tito's Yugoslavia, which was truly a one-party state; but Milosevic's Yugoslavia, where more than 20 political parties could freely operate, is deemed completely beyond the pale. Had Milosevic sold off his country's assets to the multinationals and queued up deferentially to join the European Union and Nato, and become a western 'yes-man', he would have had carte blanche to wage his own 'war against terrorism'. Anyone who doubts this need only refer to the 1999 US-EU Balkan Stability Pact, which called for all countries of the region to be offered Nato and EU membership to 'anchor them firmly in Euro-Atlantic structures', as well as demanding 'widespread privatisation' and an end to any restrictions on the operations of multinationals. The treatment handed out to Milosevic shows that the biggest enemies of socialist causes are not those with principles on the right, but those without them on the left.
Reprinted from New Statesman 11 February 2002 By permission of the author