Slobodan Milosevic has been the president of the rump of Yugoslavia (consisting of Serbia, including its two provinces Kosovo and Vojvodina, and minute Montenegro) only since 1997, but he became the unquestioned ruler of Serbia alone a decade earlier. Over the following twelve years he has succeeded in acquiring, to say the least, a rather tarnished reputation in the West, where both pundits and politicians frequently liken him to notorious evildoers from Saddam Hussein to Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and Pol Pot. These strident denunciations of Milosevic, however, have rarely been accompanied by attempts to comprehend or analyze him. Indeed, outside Yugoslavia surprisingly little is known about the man behind the visage. This shortcoming is more than a pity, for Yugoslavia has become a significant player in the post-cold-war era, having fought a bloody battle with a NATO alliance led by the world’s sole superpower in which, even if it did not prevail, its leadership survived intact.
Fortunately, a new biography by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson goes a considerable distance toward filling in some of the blanks.1 Milosevic’s two biographers themselves have highly relevant biographies. Doder, who for many years covered Eastern Europe for the Washington Post, is of Yugoslav descent and speaks the Serbo-Croatian language (a tongue now called Serbian by the Serbs, Croatian by the Croats, Bosnian by the Bosnian Muslims, and Montenegrin by the many Montenegrins who want to secede from Yugoslavia). Branson, for her part, was the Balkan bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London and has also reported from Moscow and Beijing. A married couple, the two have long experience in the Communist and post-Communist world, and have previously co-authored a best-selling biography of Mikhail Gorbachev.
Doder is also the author of The Yugoslavs, a 1978 book about the country’s politics, economy, and culture. Still worth reading but sadly out of print, The Yugoslavs presented a vigorous, curious, and hospitable people who enthusiastically mixed Balkan earthiness and Western consumerism; were boastful about their beautiful land, chic women, and macho sportsmen; had a chivalrously self-deprecating sense of humor; and scored respectably low in such odious international disciplines as racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.
Yet The Yugoslavs was apprehensive about the future of this country “where anything can happen and generally does.” Doder even sounded a tentative alert about the deep mistrust among different Yugoslav groups. Although Serbs, Croats, and Muslims were, he observed, closely joined by a web of ties, and also quite similar in key respects, memories of horrible internecine conflict of the past were still alive and occasionally kicking. From the 15th-century Ottoman Turkish conquest that had brought mass conversions to Islam and “five centuries under the Turkish yoke,” to the interethnic massacres of the Nazi and Italian fascist occupation of 1941-1945, nothing was either forgotten or forgiven. To Doder, twenty years ago, renewed violent conflicts were a distinct possibility, especially in the geographically central and politically most volatile triangle of Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia.
It is this triangle that in the early 1990’s first erupted into bloodshed as Yugoslavia fell apart. And it is this bloodshed in which Slobodan Milosevic has had a major hand.
From Doder and Branson’s new biography, we learn that the future Yugoslav leader was born in 1941 in a small town in Serbia to a family of modest means, and that his youth was darkened by the suicides of close relatives—his father, his mother, and his mother’s brother. But whatever the psychological roots of Milosevic’s authoritarian personality, the cast appears to have hardened fast: the beginnings of his political career were characterized by a rigid adherence to Communist orthodoxy and by worship of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s absolute ruler from the end of World War II until his death in 1980.
Ranging over what is known about Milosevic’s early years, Doder and Branson provide a readable description of the deteriorating interethnic relations and economic stagnation that occurred after Tito’s demise, showing how these created the conditions for Milosevic’s ascent. Until the late 1980’s a Communist functionary conspicuous only through his exceptional ordinariness, Milosevic then embraced Serbian nationalism, deploying this creed as a means of mobilizing the intellectually rudderless Communist party and making an aggressive bid for personal power.
The nature of Milosevic’s personal power is, however, rather at odds with what one might expect if one perceives him as merely a Communist apparatchik in nationalist garb. For one thing, though he presides over the state-run media, including a notorious Serbian television station that broadcasts the most chauvinistic and belligerent propaganda imaginable, his mode of rule cannot in any sense be labeled totalitarian. As Doder and Branson document, Milosevic tolerates, or feels obliged to tolerate, a range of independent newspapers (and a number of increasingly influential local television stations) that do not spare the harshest words for him and his rule.
For another thing, Milosevic has not attempted to foster a Stalinist-style personality cult. Though placards bearing his likeness can be found on city streets, they are hardly ubiquitous, nor do they greatly outnumber those of the major opposition leaders. Even the government-operated media make no effort to shower him with adulation or praise. Considering his position, it is remarkable how infrequently he appears on the television screen, and when he does so he is strikingly emotionless, restrained, and austere. In Doder and Branson’s summary, the Serbian leader has not exhibited a “need to flaunt his authority and [has] indeed preferred others to take the limelight that goes with pomp and ceremony.”
Finally, though Yugoslavia is rightly considered to be among the most corrupt countries in Europe, it is not at all clear that Milosevic himself governs for the sake of graft. While NATO planes were dropping smart bombs on Belgrade, they also dropped leaflets that inadvertently underscored this point. One such leaflet—I have a copy in my possession—featured a photograph with a caption explaining that Milosevic has a yacht and villa just “like these.” The inability of the CIA, master of the black arts, to provide a photograph of Milosevic’s actual baubles was rather telling. As for reports that he has socked away millions in Swiss bank accounts, these have not been confirmed despite the best efforts of Western governments to track down and freeze his alleged foreign holdings.
If Doder and Branson quite ably convey the principal attributes and peculiarities of Milosevic’s autocratic style, they are nevertheless wrong on one significant point. Milosevic is not, as they maintain, oriented primarily toward the East, toward Moscow, and toward Orthodoxy. In fact, the Serbian leader is fluent in English and does not speak a word of Russian. In an earlier stage of his career he regularly visited New York; it was, he has said, his favorite city. And for a time Milosevic seems to have entertained the not wholly unreasonable illusion that Washington would accept him despite his authoritarianism just as it had previously accepted Tito. Of course, as his broken promises and reckless nationalism led to successive wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, a harmonious relationship with the United States was not to be.
For the way he fought those wars, Doder and Branson do not harbor the slightest doubt that Milosevic is a war criminal, though not on the scale of the terrible dictators with whom he has so often been compared. They are not alone by now in pointing out that the number of Albanians who perished in Kosovo is much smaller than the 100,000 to 200,000 dead that NATO leaders claimed while the war was under way. Doder and Branson accept the latest estimate of 10,000 killed, although the figure most analysts agree upon is approximately 2,000, the majority of whom were not women or children but men, many of them fighters in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) who either lost their lives in action or were murdered after being captured. At least some Albanians also perished at the hands of the KLA itself for such offenses as refusing to serve in its formations or for collaborating with Serbs. Others were the “collateral” victims of NATO bombing.
Still, that Milosevic is a guilty man is beyond question. Serbian paramilitary forces did murder Albanian civilians and expel hundreds of thousands of hapless ordinary people from their homes. Milosevic had in Kosovo an army of over 100,000 who could have stopped this carnage at a word from him. There can be little doubt, too, that special units under the command of the Yugoslav interior ministry armed and supported these paramilitary formations. Milosevic may well have calculated that a massive flow of refugees to Albania and Macedonia would shock NATO leaders and compel them to stop the bombing. If so, he was badly mistaken, and only succeeded in reinforcing the unity of the alliance and in bolstering Western public support for the war.
Bringing Milosevic to justice is something his victims unquestionably deserve, and Doder and Branson salute Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor of the UN-sponsored tribunal at the Hague, who last May issued a warrant for his arrest for crimes committed in Kosovo. The indictment is based on evidence gathered by the American and British intelligence services that has yet to be declassified. Given Milosevic’s longstanding practice of ruling by indirection and engaging proxies to do his bidding, it is unlikely that incriminating documents will ever come to light.
Meanwhile, the formal accusation by the Hague tribunal makes Milosevic less likely to give up power. At the moment, he enjoys the support of under 20 percent of voters, and the democratic opposition would almost certainly win in fair elections. Never known for holding such elections (as Doder and Branson show), Milosevic will be even less inclined to play by the rules if there is a prospect he might spend the remainder of his life in a Dutch jail. Nor would placing him on trial before an international court induce the Serbian people, as some hope, to undergo a moral catharsis and abandon extreme nationalism. The overwhelming majority of Serbs see the Hague tribunal—unfairly, to be sure—as a completely subservient tool of American foreign policy.
In any case, a deeper problem, and one that Doder and Branson are careful to note, is that the Serbian leader is not the only one responsible for either the dissolution of the country or the ensuing civil war and ethnic cleansing. Among the leaders of former Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups are many other guilty men (and women, starting with the president’s highly influential spouse, Mirjana Markovic). The majority of Serbian and Croatian politicians, for example, fully supported the armed struggle for the establishment of, respectively, greater Serbia and greater Croatia, causes that required carving up Bosnia. They exhibited little distress when doing so required destroying the economy of the region and spilling the blood of innocent people.
Franjo Tudjman, for example, who died this past December, can handily be considered Yugoslavia’s second villain after Milosevic. A partisan who fought alongside Tito in World War II and who later became a “historian” of revisionist bent—his writings systematically underestimated the number of Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies murdered by Croatian fascists during World War II—Tudjman reigned as Croatia’s president from 1990 to 1999. His brutal tactics ranged from incessant anti-Serbian propaganda, to the sending of marauding paramilitary troops into Serbian villages in Croatia, to the dismissal of Serbian workers from their jobs, to the expulsion in 1995 of 240,000 Serbs from their homes in territory reconquered by Croatia—the so-called Krajina. As Doder and Branson recount, “[t]he ethnic cleansing carried out by the Croatian army was ruthlessly efficient; all Serb villages were burned to the ground and the few thousand Serbs who had remained in Krajina were slaughtered.”2 Tudjman also contributed handsomely to the destruction of Bosnia. His envoys met regularly with Milosevic’s to discuss maps and “population movements,” a euphemism for another euphemism, “ethnic cleansing”; the two leaders evidently sought to divide the small state between themselves.
As for Bosnia itself, its president, Alija Izetbegovic, was often complimented by Western leaders and Western media for his tolerance and advocacy of cultural pluralism. But Doder and Branson convincingly portray him as a crafty tactician trying to drag the United States into war on his side. The Muslim party he founded was the first in Bosnia to exclude other groups from membership, and he was quite ready to risk war for the sake of his Islamist ideology. Izetbegovic’s goal was never a multi-ethnic Bosnia, but the establishment of Europe’s first Muslim state.
But unscrupulous politicians are not the only ones with dirty hands. Even more here than in The Yugoslavs, Doder and Branson emphasize the contradictory role Yugoslavian intellectuals have long played in the country’s politics. Among those who had once courageously deconstructed Communist dogmas in the Tito era, a significant number subsequently failed to challenge the poisonous varieties of nationalism that arose in its wake. Indeed, many celebrated historians and writers promoted the view that their own ethnic group was morally, culturally, and even racially superior to the others, whom they then began to depict as insidious enemies.
If their harsh judgments of Yugoslav leaders and intellectuals are on the mark, Doder and Branson are sometimes insufficiently critical of the role played by outsiders in positions of great authority. Some, attempting to apply balm to the country’s festering wounds, actually rubbed in salt. Should Madeleine Albright, for example, really be commended for personalizing her confrontation with Milosevic, and for her conviction that what Serbs primarily understand is force and force alone? If, as Doder and Branson assert, the American Secretary of State acquired that view as a child in post-World War II Belgrade, does this not suggest that it is a prejudice rather than a profound political insight?
Other questions might be legitimately posed to opinion makers and politicians in the West. Why was Franjo Tudjman never indicted along with Milosevic for his role in driving so many Serbs from their homes, and for the butchery his forces committed in Bosnia? And what about Hashim Thaci, the young leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, who, after Serb troops moved out of Kosovo and NATO troops moved in, has presided over the pillage and destruction of some 70 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, the murder of hundreds of civilians, and the expulsion of almost all Serbs and other non-Albanians from Kosovo? Finally, what about the responsibility of NATO leaders? In a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Mandelbaum has reminded us that, in bombing infrastructure in Serbia, NATO “violated Article 14 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention, which bars attacks on ‘objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.’ ” This, too, must be weighed in the scales.
Still, even if all these questions could somehow be answered to the satisfaction of the Serbs themselves, theirs is a pitiful predicament. “Gallant little Serbia” was the sobriquet earned by the country in World War I after it won several important battles against the much larger Austro-Hungarian empire. And every Western democracy admired the Serbs’ heroic struggle against fascism during World War II. Today, the Serbs’ only consolation is that, if they have behaved very badly, other peoples of the former Yugoslavia have not behaved much better.
That is a sad verdict to render on a small nation, and one with its undeniable moments of greatness in the century just concluded. For leading his country so low, one Serb alone deserves the lion’s share of the blame.
1 Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant. Free Press, 304 pp., $25.00.
2 Doder and Branson point out that the United States was to some extent complicit in this tragedy. The Clinton administration had wanted to heighten the pressure on Bosnian Serbs, and Croatian forces in effect served as a proxy that permitted the U.S. to avoid committing troops” of its own.