BRUSSELS, March 14 (UPI) -- Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic died of a probable heart attack Saturday and the Balkan country he ruled with an iron fist could follow him to the graveyard of history this year if Kosovo and Montenegro break away from the rump Yugoslav state.
Montenegro, which has formed an alliance with Serbia since 2003, is due to hold a referendum May 21 to decide whether it should become an independent state or remain tied to Belgrade. Polls show a clear majority in favor of the former option, but European Union-imposed rules requiring a 55 percent victory for the 'yes' camp for the ballot to be recognized could cloud the picture.
Serbia could probably afford to lose Montenegro, a tiny republic of only 650,000 inhabitants nestled between Bosnia and Albania, but it will not give up Kosovo without a fierce struggle.
The fates of Kosovo and Milosevic are intricately entwined. In June 1989, the communist boss addressed hundreds of thousands of people on the plains of Kosovo Polje to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, a defeat that ushered in five centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule in the Balkans. Milosevic, who never missed an opportunity to wrap himself in the Serb flag, warned of the battles they were likely to face. "They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded yet."
A decade of bloodshed followed in which the tyrant dubbed the "Butcher of the Balkans" sent Serb troops and paramilitaries to subdue Slovenes, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians. Milosevic lost every one of the wars he wars he started and two-thirds of the territory he once controlled in the process.
The drubbing he received at the hands of NATO in 1999 was to prove Milosevic's downfall. A year later he was hounded out of office after attempting to annul a humiliating electoral defeat. The following summer he was on his way to The Hague to face charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Kosovo has effectively been an EU/United Nations protectorate for the last seven years, but most analysts expect the ongoing talks about the province's status to end in full independence for Pristina. The Serb government will resist the move until the bitter end, but under pressure from the European Union and NATO -- both of which it wants to join -- it will have little choice but to accept the international community's diktat.
Brussels has already made its position on Kosovo abundantly clear. In a speech last week, EU Enlargement Commissioner Ollie Rehn said the 25-member bloc expects "realism that there can be no return for Kosovo to Belgrade's rule."
The European Union has also warned Serbia that it stands no chance of starting EU membership talks until Milosevic's partners in crime, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are handed over to The Hague court. At an informal meeting in Salzburg Saturday, EU foreign ministers warned that if the two men are not captured by the end of the month, Brussels will suspend talks aimed at preparing Serbia for European Union membership.
It is fitting that EU foreign ministers received news of Milosevic's death at precisely the moment they were sitting down with Balkan colleagues to discuss the countries' creeping progress towards joining the European family of nations, because the Serb strongman and the European Union represent diametrically opposed visions of the continent.
Milosevic used hysterical nationalism to grab and cling onto power, saw extreme violence as an extension of politics and brought ethnic cleansing and concentration camps back to a continent that thought it had escaped such barbarities half a century earlier. The European Union, founded to put an end to war in Europe, on the other hand is reluctant to use violence to project its power and views the nation state as "so 19th Century."
It is clear which vision ultimately triumphed. Over the weekend, foreign ministers said that despite the current enlargement fatigue in the bloc, "the EU confirms that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union." What remains of Serbia will, probably within the next decade, join the Union along with Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and an independent Montenegro and Kosovo. Many of the same countries will also join NATO, which only seven years ago was dropping bombs on Belgrade.
By trying to bind together Yugoslavia's republics into one state under Belgrade's rule, Milosevic and his allies ended up creating five countries, with another two likely to see the light of day soon. "Had we had a different leader we might have seen a united Yugoslavia enter the European Union in 2004," says Nicholas Whyte, director of the International Crisis Group's Europe program. "Instead what we witnessed was 15 years of conflict in the Balkans."
Whether looked at politically or militarily, Milosevic -- and the policies he espoused -- was an abject failure. The only thing he succeeded in was causing destruction on a scale not seen in Europe since the Nazis. An op-ed in Slovene daily Dnevnik Monday perhaps best sums up the banality of the former president's demise: "The man who dreamed of a Greater Serbia met his death in a cell no larger than 15 square meters."
Milosevic may have escaped the verdict of the Hague court by his sudden departure, but Mladic, Karadzic and company are unlikely to be so lucky. The question is not whether they will be handed over to the tribunal but when.
Milosevic's death -- the cause of which is already the subject of conspiracy theories on the streets of Belgrade -- will bring little satisfaction to the families of the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives because of his policies, but may help draw a line under one of the most painful and bloody periods of European history.