Ex-U.S. ambassador talks Milošević fall

"Everything changed when Milošević decided to call early elections. We realized that it was an opportunity we could not miss and that we needed to help the democratic opposition in Serbia in every way to defeat Milošević."

Source: nacional.hr

Former Yugoslavia was not only a career stop for the 65-year-old former ambassador. After he retired, Montgomery and his wife Lynne bought a house in Croatia and they also spend some time in Belgrade where they own an apartment. Montgomery has a consulting business but he also writes columns for various Croatian and Serbian newspapers.

Several weeks ago, ahead of the 10th anniversary of mass protests in Serbia and fall of Slobodan Milošević’s regime, the Serbian public learned that Montgomery’s book describing his and role of the U.S. in the events would soon come out. In his book, published in Serbia by Dan Graf, Montgomery writes about the dramatic events that changed course of modern history in the Balkans.

In an interview for Croatian daily Nacional this week, translated here from Croatian, he spoke about some details of the book.

Nacional: Most diplomats are usually very secretive when it comes to their work. How did you decide to write a book about your activities during your diplomatic service in Serbia?

Montgomery: The book deals with the period after I left the embassy in Croatia in 2001 and left for Budapest where I opened up the Yugoslav affairs office, then when I came to Belgrade after Milošević’s fall. Therefore, it is about the period from 2000 until 2004 and those are my personal experiences from that time, but I was focusing on what we from the embassy did.

Nacional: Before dealing with Serbia and Milošević you spent several years in Croatia, but there is not a single chapter about Croatia in your book.

Montgomery: No, because I’m planning on writing a second book which will speak in detail about my time in Croatia. I’m a little bit lazy, I had been planning on writing the first book for five years, I finally found the time to do it last November. Then it took five months for the people from the State Department to study my manuscript and delete some things, but I hope that this winter, in the next couple of months, I will write a book about Croatia. I suppose it means that it will come out next year, about this time.

Nacional: How honest were you, and can you be honest in describing Serbia and what your job was there?

Montgomery: Good question. I hate reading books written by people who are not honest or don’t have enough details. The challenge certainly was the fact that I was a member of the American administration at the time and I was aware of much confidential information that the U.S. government has every right to say “We’re sorry, but you cannot publish this, it’s still secret information.” So the government and services read my manuscript and asked me to leave out only some parts which contained information that is still marked as secret to this day. On the other hand, everything else was kept: I was very honest and very thorough. Though, there were some events, situations and incidents I wanted to publish but I was not allowed to.

Nacional: The book begins with the establishment of your office in Budapest in the summer of 2001. Up until recently the public did not know much about that special assignment you had.

Montgomery: This chapter of the book is dedicated to the time in Budapest and the office I opened there. It was supposed to be the U.S. embassy for Serbia in-exile, the reason for placing the office in Budapest was for the most part because people from Serbia could simply travel to Hungary, without visas. The book describes in detail the ways in which we were helping the democratic alternative to Milošević’s regime win.

Nacional: What were your goals in Budapest?

Montgomery: To bring down Slobodan Milošević’s regime. When I arrived in Budapest, which was in June of 2000, I had to find a place for my new office, employees. We wanted to be completely separate from the U.S. embassy in Budapest, we assumed we were going to be there at least three years. Everything changed when Milošević decided to call early elections. At that point, we realized that it was an opportunity we could miss and that we needed to help the democratic opposition in Serbia in every way to defeat Milošević.

Nacional: It is not quite clear even today why Milošević called early elections in the fall of 2000.

Montgomery: I think that he tragically miscalculated. He lost touch with the citizens and surrounded himself with people who were not telling him bad news. I think he really thought he would win, even by cheating. And we decided to step up our efforts to keep Milošević’s cheating at a minimum. GONG (a non-partisan citizens' organization founded in 1997 to encourage citizens to actively participate in political processes) already existed in Croatia at the time, we established an equivalent organization for parallel counting of votes in Serbia. We trained members of the opposition to copy documents on counting of votes immediately after the closing of polls and to immediately phone in the final results to the opposition election headquarters. That way the opposition had copies of the original voting and at the same time they knew the final election results before Milošević.

Nacional: About 20 days ago RTS (Serbian state broadcaster) aired a documentary called The Final Clash, about the events on October 5, 2000. In that documentary you said that you helped bring in more than USD 100mn into Serbia in order to topple Milošević.

Montgomery: I don’t want to comment on the amount of money. I actually don’t know how much money was really spent. I can only say that the U.S. thought that Milošević had to fall, that he was a big source of instability in the entire region. One of the ways to achieve that was to develop the civil society, especially independent media and associations such as GONG. A democratic alternative to Milošević’s regime needed to be strengthened by all means. For example, we gave special cell phones to key political leaders of the opposition which were working during the protests independently from the Serbian telecommunications network.

Nacional: You dedicated a significant part of the book to the relationship between former Serbian (sic) President Vojislav Koštunica and former Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić.

Montgomery: Those two were marked by constant conflicts and power struggle. When it comes to the events of October 5, 2000, if it had been up to Koštunica parliament or national TV never would have been seized. Đinđić and others wanted a revolution and quick changes and Koštunica was against sudden decisions and advocated that everything should be conducted strictly according to the law. We’ll never know whose way was better, that of Đinđić or Koštunica. A good answer would probably be that it should have gone farther than Koštunica allowed and shorter of what Đinđić wanted.

Nacional: The assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić still remains an enigma for many in Serbia.

Montgomery: Zoran Đinđić was one of the most talented, most complex and most charismatic persons I have ever met. We often met, in his office or at his house in the evening over a glass of wine, and in most cases we were alone. Still, he kept his contacts with Milorad Ulemek Legija (convicted as mastermind of Đinđić's 2003 murder) from me and from many others. Even today I don’t know what concrete benefit Legija and his people had from Đinđić, but Legija undeniably helped him on several occasions.

Nacional: How did Legija help him?

Montgomery: Firstly, it is well-known that Đinđić and Legija met the night before October 5, 2000 and that the epilogue of that meeting was that Legija and his people peacefully let Milošević fall. Furthermore, Đinđić personally ended the mutiny of Legija’s mercenaries (the Special Operations Unit, JSO) in November of 2001. Still, the biggest event was certainly Milošević’s arrest and some of the details of that event still haven’t been clarified. Much evidence of the existence of a relations between Zoran Đinđić and Legija is already well-known to the Serbian public. It has so far been unknown that Čedomir Jovanović visited the boss of the Zemun (Clan) gang Dušan Spasojević in prison on several occasions and helped him get out of prison where he was serving time for kidnapping Delta (Holding) owner Miroslav Mišković, and that he was a frequent guest at Spasojević’s home. What has not been talked about much and it is still unclear today, is the question why Legija and the Zemun gang were helping Đinđić, how they benefited from that.

Nacional: Even though you were openly working on toppling Slobodan Milošević and transferring him to the Hague Tribunal to stand trial, you had a semi-secret meeting with his wife Mira Marković several years later?

Montgomery: Yes, it was in late 2002 when I was in Belgrade officially as the ambassador. I didn't know her at all prior to that meeting, but I knew Milošević. In fact, my first diplomatic job was precisely in Belgrade in the 1970's. I was then in charge of monitoring the banking sector and one of my best sources of information was Beogradska Bank, and when Milošević became its director, we even used to dine together. And so, at the end of 2002 I received a call that Mira Marković would like to see me. It was winter, it was snowing, she came alone and she was very nervous, so I suggested she should have coffee with me. I didn't have any idea how to begin the conversation, in normal situations you'd ask about her family, but in that situation, each such question had a political connotation.

However, I started with the children, so she told me that her daughter Marija had moved to Montenegro because she was discussed with the way Serbs had treated her father. She wouldn't tell me where her son (Marko) was, she just said he was far away and that they kept in touch through phone calls. When she started talking about her husband it became clear to me that she really considered him the biggest leader in the Serbian history. She then told me that there was a letter for (U.S.) President (George) Bush to intervene so the Hague Tribunal would make a one-year break and allow her husband to get medical treatment.

I replied that the Hague Tribunal was making their decisions independently and she just smiled at that, but I promised her that I would pass the letter on to Bush. At the end of our conversation she told me the most interesting thing: she said that her husband had serious health problems with his blood pressure and that he would rather die defending himself than serve any prison sentence. She added that she knew with certainty that he had not been taking his blood pressure medication for quite some time and that he could kill himself that way.

Nacional: Many people in Croatia would find the chapter about the Hague Tribunal interesting, especially about former Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. You certainly did not cut her any slack?

Montgomery: Unfortunately, the Hague Tribunal will in the entire Balkans always be connected to Carla Del Ponte. The fact is that not a single Hague indictee ended up in the Hague as a result of her controversial trips throughout the Balkans, but as a result of actions and pressures exerted by the U.S. and European Union member states. Her acting like a bull in a china shop which reflected in her visits to the region well-covered by the media, was counterproductive because she was slamming very sensitive democratic systems and making nationalistic feelings in all countries stronger.

That way she made democratic transitions harder and actually did more damage than good in regards to the transfer of the Hague indictees to the Hague. Also, she made a series of bad strategic decision as the chief prosecutor. Aside from all that, she was constantly exaggerating with the alleged “evidence“ about the fugitives' hiding places. How many times we heard from her that Ante Gotovina was hiding in Croatia or in Bosnia-Herzegovina? And he was eventually arrested in the Canary Islands.

Nacional: Are you satisfied with what you have achieved in your diplomatic service?

Montgomery: I achieved everything that was asked of me, but I think that the entire job is not finished and that's in fact the main reason why I wrote the book. During the 1990's the U.S. was involved in many international events in which we had a key role and which we considered great successes. At the end of each event we had a scene that could have been a typical American movie happy ending – for example, crowds of citizens in front of the Serbian parliament and Milošević's fall. In reality, it was not the end of the movie but only the end of a chapter in the history of a region or a country, and a beginning of a new chapter, full of new challenges and perhaps even more difficult.

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