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Intrigue follows Milosevic, even in death

The details coming out in the aftermath of Slobodan Milosevic’s death remind many o f the cloak-and-dagger intrigue that surrounded him in life. NBC News’ Jim Maceda, who covered the Balkan wars for nearly a decade,  reports from The Hague.
/ Source: NBC News

For anyone who has followed Serbian politics, the details coming out in the aftermath of Slobodan Milosevic’s death remind readers of much of the cloak-and-dagger intrigue that surrounded him in life.

From the details of his death, to the plans for his burial, shadowy figures and back-room deals seem to rule the day.

''Even in death, Slobodan Milosevic remains Serbia's most influential politician,” said one source on the condition of anonymity, summing up the machinations of the alleged war criminal’s posthumous existence to date. 

For starters, there is still a large “whodunit” aspect of Milosevic’s death. It is still unclear what happened to Milosevic because we are still waiting for the final toxicology report, which could take days.

However, Dutch toxicologist Dr. Donald Uges tells an amazing story of the medical mystery surrounding Milosevic’s death.

Uges was asked four weeks ago by a good friend of his — who he knew was among a group of doctors treating Milosevic — to analyze a blood sample from a “Mr. X.”

He had no idea who “Mr. X” was, but he was asked to analyze the blood sample for a very specific and strong antibiotic called rifampicin — a drug more often used for the treatment of leprosy and tuberculosis that would have made other medicines ineffective.

Milosevic, who was 64, had a history of heart problems and high blood pressure, and took medications to treat those conditions.

Apparently Uges is the only doctor in Holland who has the equipment capable of analyzing a sample for that substance.

He did find traces of the antibiotic and called his colleague who was treating Milosevic, among others, to say that yes, he had found it. The colleague, who still did not reveal who “Mr. X” was, told him to keep that sample in the refrigerator and send him the results of the test immediately.

Uges later found out that as soon as the test results arrived, the colleague went directly to the U.N. tribunal at The Hague and the chief U.N. prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, with the information.

The colleague had put two and two together and realized that Milosevic was taking, or being given, a drug that was neutralizing all the good effects of the other medicine he had been prescribed.

The very next day, Del Ponte came out publicly and, in effect, said, “No, Mr. Milosevic — you will not be going to Russia for treatment,” referring to Milosevic’s numerous attempts to leave his prison cell for medical treatment in Russia.

Uges was watching this unfold, but still had no idea who “Mr. X” was — only finding out subsequent to the Del Ponte news conference. 

This secret blood sample caper is a typical example of how the Milosevic story has always evolved...mysteriously, like a novel.

“This was Slobodan Milosevic’s single shot at freeing himself once and for all from The Hague,” said Uges.

It is Uges’ belief that Milosevic was not trying to commit suicide, but rather trying to render himself weak enough to prove to The Hague that the Dutch doctors didn’t have the competence to treat him, so that they would allow him to go to Russia and escape captivity.

Burial deal-making
Equally fascinating is what will happen next to the body of Milosevic, and even here he remains as controversial and influential as ever.

Sources in Belgrade told me that a deal seems to have been struck between the Kostunica government in Serbia, a coalition government, and the SPS party, Milosevic’s old socialist party, whereby Mirjana Markovic (Milosevic’s wife) can come to Serbia, to Belgrade, to attend a private funeral, not a state funeral, for her husband.

The body of Milosevic would be accompanied by his son, Marko, who is expected to arrive on Tuesday at The Hague to collect his father's remains.

But Markovic's status remains unclear. She has an arrest warrant on her head, back in Serbia.

According to the apparent deal, Markovic would be allowed to attend a funeral in Belgrade and not be arrested, in exchange for her depositing a ''substanital sum of money'' in the bank of Serbia. She would be able to collect her deposit only after she appears in a Serbian court for questioning regarding the 2000 murder of an arch Milosevic rival.

If she appears in court she gets the deposit and returns to Moscow. If she doesn't appear, she loses the bundle.

(Later, before leaving Moscow for the Hague, Marko Markovic told reporters that the Serbian government was still blocking a funeral in Belgrade, and that the government couldn't guarantee "protection" for his mother. In fact, my sources say, it is his mother's fear that Marko might be killed by any number of hitmen hired by his many enemies in Belgrade that may be the ultimate deal-breaker.)

Shadowy deals continue to dominate
It is another amazing, shadowy story that shows how the government and Milosevic are still bargaining, and still giving and taking.

These two aspects are reminiscent of the political intrigue and mafia-like storyline that colored nearly a decade of Balkan Wars — moving from Slovenia to Croatia to Bosnia to Kosovo.

The political story in the former Yugoslavia was often one where shadowy characters, usually armed, were killing other shadowy characters who were also usually armed, where the Milosevic government worked in collusion with hitmen and bribes were common, where there was little distinction between political authority, the secret service, and the undereground. Somehow, it all seems to smack of that still.