THE HAGUE, Netherlands - Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched a vigorous, rambling and often mesmerizing defense against charges of war crimes yesterday, portraying himself as a victim, NATO as an aggressor, and Yugoslavia as a country divided and ravaged by the West.
"You basically have nothing, and that is why you have to concoct things, you have to invent things," he told the court in an opening statement that was rich in grisly detail about human suffering during the Balkans wars but that denied he played a significant role.
Dressed in a charcoal gray suit and a striped red-white-and-blue tie that matched the colors of his country's flag, he seemed to be addressing not just the judges and prosecutors, but his fellow Serbs and the people who may yet write the history of Yugoslavia's collapse.
"They have accused all Serbs inside and outside of Serbia who have supported me and who support me to this day," he said.
Despite continuing to challenge the legality of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, he acted as his own defense counsel in a trial that may provide the best accounting of the conflicts that engulfed his country.
At times, he rocked in his chair or waved his arms for emphasis. At other times, when he slipped on reading glasses, he looked almost like the banker he was before he began his climb to political power.
Milosevic, the first head of state in history to be tried for war crimes, has been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity in the Balkan wars of the 1990s in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Sitting between two burly guards, Milosevic turned his head and played to all corners of the world court. He looked at the three-judge panel sitting to his left, to the prosecutors sitting in front of him, and the media and public seated to his right behind bullet-proof glass.
He waved photographs of people killed by NATO bombs unleashed during a 78-day air campaign to evict Serb troops from Kosovo in 1999 and provided commentary as other graphic photos were flashed in the court by a projector.
He sounded almost wistful as he mentioned the leaders he once faced as equals, including French President Jacques Chirac, whom he said he wants to call to testify, and then-U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke.
Milosevic was scornful of prosecutors, who over the previous two days had laid out their case alleging that he participated in a "joint criminal enterprise." He dismissed the notion that he pulled the strings in the Balkans when he dryly said one prosecutor "thinks that I am super-human, he has ascribed to me some magical God-like powers."
In many ways, the prosecutors and Milosevic weren't describing the same case.
The prosecutors have assembled documentary and forensic evidence about alleged atrocities and criminal activities conducted by Milosevic's regime during the 1990s.
Milosevic has countered by virtually brushing everything as an "ocean of lies" while launching a familiar argument that the true villains in the Balkans were the Western powers and their military arm, NATO.
"The whole world knows this is a political trial, and it has nothing to do with law," he said.
Even as he demanded to be set free to continue the trial - he promised not to flee - Milosevic seemed to revel in his role as a courtroom underdog facing accusers alone.
"There is an enormous apparatus on one side, a vast media structure on that same side ... everything is at your disposal," he said. "What is on my side? I only have a public telephone booth in the prison; that is the only thing I have available in order to face here the most terrible kind of libel addressed against my country, my people and me."
He likened the trial to a swimming race in which "you want to tie my hands and feet and let me swim that way."
The world has waited years for this trial, a judgment day that was set in motion when Milosevic was toppled from power in October 2000 and then transported to The Hague by Serbia's new rulers. He called those rulers "a puppet regime that has to listen to orders [from the West] but is not supported by the people."
To assess Milosevic's guilt or innocence will be a long process; the trial is expected to last up to two years. One reason for that long period is the detailed case that prosecutors seek to present. The other reason is that in defending himself, Milosevic, though schooled as an attorney, is expected to drag out the process, if for no other reason than he seems to live in a world of his own creation.
He still acts as if he runs a country instead of growing accustomed to his role as a defendant accused of the most heinous crimes in Europe's post-World War II history.
Milosevic didn't have a prepared text, as such, just pages and pages of notes and photos that he slipped from a black leather briefcase and put on his table and methodically referred to. The pile was a couple of inches thick when he started at precisely 9 a.m. yesterday asking, "Can you hear me?" and then requested a documentary be shown that purported to detail Western propaganda aimed at the Serbs to buttress NATO intervention in Kosovo.
The pile of documents was a lot smaller when the truncated session ended in the early afternoon.
Milosevic was expected to continue his opening argument today.
In making his case, Milosevic gave his adversaries a rare chance to evaluate his thinking.
In the world according to Milosevic, Serbia was the only portion of Yugoslavia in which there was no ethnic discrimination. He claimed to know little about the wars that engulfed Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions more displaced.
He tried to stop the fighting, he said, including the bombardment of Sarajevo, the city that was subjected to a brutal siege under the guns of Bosnian Serb artillery.
"Why do you want to make Serbia and Serbs responsible for the war in Bosnia and Croatia when neither I nor anyone in Serbia knew anything about it?" he asked.
As for who was at fault in Yugoslavia's collapse, "Your bosses broke up Yugoslavia," he told prosecutors, meaning that Western powers triggered the country's collapse into ethnic statelets. He cited a "neo-Nazi" idea to break up Yugoslavia.
He countered prosecution claims that his forces embarked on a planned assault to oust more than 800,000 ethnic Albanians during the Kosovo conflict in 1999.
"You mentioned a scorched-earth plan," he said. "I don't know where you got that, you must have got that from Vietnam."
Milosevic said his government was entitled to defend itself against an insurgency inspired by a band of ethnic Albanian rebels, the Kosovo Liberation Army.
"The Americans go to the other side of the globe to fight terrorism - to Afghanistan - and that is considered to be logical and normal," he said. "The fight against terrorism in the heart of one's own home, one's own country, is considered to be a crime."
According to Milosevic, it was KLA intimidation, coupled with NATO bombing, that created the flood of refugees in Kosovo. "NATO bombed and massively killed the Albanians themselves," he said. "The population of Kosovo fled because the KLA forced them to do so. It beat them and killed them."
Milosevic said whatever violence was inflicted upon civilians was "not done" by the Serbian army and police, who "defended their own country with honor and chivalry." He acknowledged that crimes may have been committed by "individuals and groups."
He still seemed stung by NATO's bombing campaign in 1999. It destroyed much of Serbia's infrastructure and forced him to withdraw his troops from the Serbian province of Kosovo.
"This bombing was merciless," he said. "This bombing of civilian targets was merciless. The more suffering for civilians the better. The more suffering, the more the lives of people were imperiled."
He showed scores of horrific photos of the civilian casualties and damage inflicted in so-called "collateral damage" incidents involving NATO warplanes.
But for a moment, there was gleam in his eye as he challenged the prosecutors who had lambasted him for giving promotions to key generals from the conflict. He seemed especially pleased to note that his military shot down a U.S. Air Force F-117 stealth plane.
"We are the only country that managed to shoot down a so-called invisible plane," he said. "This man who shot down an invisible aircraft - didn't that man deserve a decoration? He deserved 50 decorations."