Leader of a Serb mini-state, Krajina, who was sacked by Milosevic and then gave evidence against him
Tuesday 07 March 2006
Milan Babic, dentist and politician: born Kukor, Yugoslavia 26 February 1956; Prime Minister, Serb Republic of Krajina 1991-92, 1995, President 1991-92; married (one son, one daughter); died The Hague 5 March 2006.
By the time he committed suicide in the cells of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, Milan Babic, one of the wartime leaders of Croatia's separatist Serbs, had been largely forgotten outside Croatia and Serbia. But, back at the beginning of the 1990s, the one-time dentist was a key player in the struggle waged by Croatia's hardline Serb nationalists to create their own mini-state in Serb-inhabited parts of Croatia.
As the first president and prime minister of the self-proclaimed Serb Republic of Krajina (RSK), Babic was nominally in charge of rebel-held territory that stretched over nearly a third of Croatia. But the limits on his real power became evident when he was unceremoniously removed from office at the beginning of 1992 by Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic. Babic's sacking followed his opposition to the ceasefire that put an end to six months of fighting between independence-seeking Croatia and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army which had been fighting alongside Croatia's rebel Serbs.
Milosevic was content with leaving it to United Nations peacekeepers to supervise the ceasefire and keep de facto control of Krajina in Serb hands. He was already preparing for war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose ethnic Serb community - at twice the size of Croatia's 600,000 - was much more important in the project of creating a greater Serbia. Babic feared that the ceasefire deal would collapse once Croatia had managed to expand its embryonic military forces. He was proved right: in 1995 Croatia's military swept away the Krajina Serb entity, and the Babic family joined nearly 200,000 other Serbs as they fled Croatia.
By then Milosevic had abandoned Croatia's Serbs, just as previously he had made Babic redundant. Babic repaid him in kind by acting as a prosecution witness in Milosevic's trial on war-crimes and genocide charges at The Hague. He provided some of the most powerful testimony, detailing - with an insider's knowledge - Milosevic's control over Croatia's rebel Serbs.
Milan Babic was born in 1956 in the rural heartland of Croatia's centuries-old Serb community near the town of Knin. He graduated from Belgrade University's School of Dentistry in 1981, and seemed destined for the life of a provincial dentist until the political turmoil of the late 1980s catapulted him to political office. As the Communist-ruled Yugoslav federation bequeathed by President Tito began to be torn asunder by the return of virulent nationalism, Babic became one of the founders of the Serb Democratic Party in Croatia.
In 1990 Babic was elected mayor of Knin, a sleepy railway town that was to become the capital of the Serb-controlled areas of Croatia. His election coincided with the electoral victory across the country of hardline Croatian nationalists, led by Franjo Tudjman and his Croatian Democratic Union, the HDZ. As the new HDZ government began to pursue a range of policies that whittled away the rights of ethnic Serbs, Babic and his associates established no-go areas for the Croatian security forces by barricading roads with trees.
This "log revolution" escalated into heavy fighting as Croatia proclaimed its independence in June 1991. At the end of that year, when the European Union signalled its impending recognition of Croatia, the rebel Serbs declared their own RSK, which they wanted to remain part of what was left of Yugoslavia.
Babic became the first president and prime minister of the self-proclaimed Serb mini-state. But he lasted only a few months in office. Milosevic accepted the ceasefire proposal put forward by Cyrus Vance, the UN mediator, leading to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from Croatia. As Babic resisted the plan, he was summoned to Belgrade to change his views. When he proved obstinate in the face of hours of persuasion, he was sacked from his posts on Milosevic's instructions in early 1992.
However, Babic remained popular among the Krajina Serbs. In the RSK presidential election at the end of 1993, he defeated the pro-Milosevic candidate, Milan Martic, who was the local police chief. The result was then annulled under pressure from Milosevic. A fresh election, following a media campaign run by Belgrade, ensured Martic's victory a few weeks later.
In spite of his repeated setbacks, Babic proved resilient. He re-emerged as Krajina's prime minister. By then he had learnt from his mistakes and in summer 1995 he accepted a plan that would have given Serb-inhabited regions considerable autonomy. His readiness to compromise came too late: Croatian forces retook Krajina in a lightning attack in August 1995. Babic escaped to Belgrade, but it was the end of his political career. He worked instead as a farmer on land in northern Serbia.
He came to prominence again at the end of 2002 when he testified at the Milosevic trial in The Hague. The prosecution was seeking to prove that, although Milosevic, as President of Serbia, had not had any formal authority over institutions in Croatia during the years of conflict, he had actually exercised effective control over both the Yugoslav military and Croatia's hardline Serbs. Therefore, he bore responsibility for some of the atrocities that had accompanied the campaign of ethnic cleansing against Croats and other non-Serbs during the early 1990s.
Babic was named in the Milosevic indictment as one of those involved in ethnic cleansing operations. Eventually he was himself charged in 2003 with persecuting non-Serbs. He agreed a plea-bargain with the prosecution: in return for his pleading guilty on one charge, the prosecution dropped four other charges against him. Babic also issued a statement in which he expressed shame and remorse for his actions - one of only a handful of defendants to have done that at The Hague.
Although the prosecution asked for Babic's imprisonment not to exceed 11 years, the judges ruled that the gravity of his crimes required a 13-year sentence. At the time of his death Babic, who had been spending his jail term at an undisclosed location, had returned to The Hague to give testimony against his former associate and rival Milan Martic.
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