The ethnic cleanser
Slobodan Milosevic has lost almost every battle he's fought--except the one to stay in power
By Johanna McGeary
March 29, 1999
Who wants to die for Slobodan Milosevic? He is one of the great losers of history. He failed to hold together the former Yugoslavia, and he failed to build in its place a Greater Serbia. In the past 10 years, he has launched four wars and lost three. He is currently on the verge of losing a piece of real estate held especially dear by Serbs. As Europe's most disruptive dictator since the fall of the Berlin Wall, he bears responsibility for the extermination of 250,000 in Bosnia and Croatia, for the European revival of concentration camps and massacres, for the displacement of millions in Bosnia and Croatia and Kosovo, for the impoverishment and ostracism of his own country.
Now Milosevic has again chosen war. Like a shark that has to keep moving to stay alive, he is willfully exposing the withered state of Serbia to the might of NATO for the sake of his own power. As always, he gambled that talk, hopes, threats and indecision would wear his enemies into retreat. When that didn't happen, he put in jeopardy virtually everything left to him, courting death for his people and damage to his country, the destruction of his military machine, the hastened secession of Kosovo and Montenegro, and perhaps even the end of his regime. He has wagered a single, grand bet that stakes his own and his country's future on a staggeringly high-risk confrontation. The West stands confounded by leaders who play by such rules.
For Milosevic, opportunism has been a way of life. The Serb standard bearer does not talk about his parents' immigration from Montenegro to the town where he was born, Pozarevac in Serbia. He was the son of a teacher who had studied to be an Orthodox priest and a puritanical schoolteacher. They orphaned him through suicide while he was still a young man--his father first, and his mother a decade later. Despite his father's interest in religion, Milosevic never embraced the church. At 18 he turned himself into a Communist Party zealot, assuming so thoroughly the image of a dedicated functionary that admiring colleagues dubbed him "Little Lenin." While still a student, he fell in love with and married Mirjana Markovic, daughter of a distinguished partisan and party family, and together they climbed her connections up through party ranks. Educated in the law, he filled high posts at Tehnogas and Beobank, but he was not really a lawyer, technician or banker. He was a party "fixer." By 1984 he was fixing his way through the national party, and by 1987, he led Serbia's Communist Party.
Yet for him communism was just a passing phase. His wife, a fervent Marxist, says ideology has never meant as much to Milosevic as it does to her. When he saw a chance to grab power, he pushed the communists aside and refashioned himself as a nationalist. In 1987 he went to Kosovo, the cradle of Serbian identity, to soothe the grievances of local Serbs, and he made his name by declaring, "No one shall be allowed to beat you." Milosevic was moved less by Serb nationalism than by its power to electrify. "After that night," recounted a Serb journalist, "there was a psychological change in him. All at once he discovered he had this power over people." Says Veran Matic, director of the independent Radio B-92, which was a target in Milosevic's crackdown last week: "He understands perfectly the mentality of the people, what political culture demands here, what rhetoric sells."
Defender of the Serbs--it was a seductive image, one that reached back across 600 years of Slavic victimization and imbued the solid, fleshy-faced and silver-haired man with the mystique of historical destiny. In a nation searching for a post-cold war identity, the aura served as an express ticket to total power. Conducting a new symphony of ethnic hate, Milosevic stepped into the top slot once occupied by Tito. Virtually his first act was to revoke the autonomy Tito had granted to the Albanians in Kosovo. Playing up nationalist passions, Milosevic helped ignite full-scale ethnic rivalry among some of the country's other republics. During that period, even the intellectual elite supported his nationalist euphoria. But once he had used them to cement his position, he cast them aside. He is faithful, says biographer Slavoljub Djukic, to no one except his wife once a person's usefulness is past.
Firmly ensconced as Serbia's boss, Milosevic proved to be smart, articulate and cunning. "He does not believe in ideas," says a Russian-born observer. "He makes no value judgments." So far as anyone can tell, he brought with him no grand plan for Serbia. His ambition appeared to consist of staying on top--forever. While he has showed a genius for tactics, he is perpetually forced to react to events, even ones he provokes.
Perhaps it is no accident that Kosovo, the venerated scene of Serbia's great defeat by the Ottoman Turks in an epic battle fought in 1389, marks both the beginning and possibly the end of Milosevic's career. Milosevic has displayed an uncanny knack for defeats. His 1991 war in Croatia to retain control of the old Yugoslavia eventually ended with hundreds of thousands of Serbs forced out of their homes, farms and villages. Today they make up a refugee population living hand to mouth inside Serbia, not even granted the privilege of Yugoslav citizenship. Yet the war served to polish Milosevic's nationalist credentials with the Serb masses.
Milosevic's war in Bosnia to expand Greater Serbia ended in another defeat. To save himself, he had to knuckle under to international diplomacy. Ever ready to discard what has become harmful, he dropped his backing for Serb kin in the breakaway state, eventually making peace at their expense at Dayton in 1995. He turned this humiliation into another kind of triumph when he paraded on the world stage as a peacemaker equal to the superpower leaders negotiating with him. Yet he was no more a man of peace than he was a communist or nationalist. He simply did what he had to do to stay in power.
Power, say those who know him, is the one thing he truly loves. He exercises it daily, in matters large and small. From his subordinates, he brooks no challenges. When Serb officials began several months ago to obstruct the work of international monitors in Kosovo, it was clearly at his orders, a way of saying, notes a diplomat involved, "This is my turf, and I'm boss." He does not flaunt decorative symbols of office or stage showy ceremonies and cares nothing for state protocol. But if he shirks the glamour of power, he still loves delicious moments of control. When foreign diplomats appear at his door, he glows as he picks the chairs on which they will sit.
Above all, Milosevic is a crafty autocrat. He relies exclusively on his own judgment, and little is done without his consent. While other institutions of state exist--a government, an elected Chamber of Citizens, ministries--he has limited their capacity to function. Only the police force works--an organization full of "his guys" that is exhausting in its myriad forms of harassment. The state is Slobodan Milosevic.
Much of his strength lies in the weakness of his enemies. In 1996 the Serb President did suffer a scare when three months of protests over fraudulent elections filled the streets with disillusioned citizens demanding democratic change. But he held out long enough to allow the opposition to self-destruct in personal rivalries. Since then his strongest potential challengers have opted to join his government instead of fight it. In 1997, when the constitution barred him from a third term as President of Serbia, he stuck to legal niceties and "won" election as President of the Yugoslav Federation, transforming that ceremonial post into his new seat of power.
Yet despite having proved himself a cunning politician, he is said to be insecure, even paranoid. U.S. diplomats, eager to point up what they see as limits to his popularity, say he is so fearful for his personal security that he refuses to go out in public. While he may partly be cultivating the dictator's aura of mystery, some Serbs say he is fundamentally a deeply suspicious, withdrawn and secretive person.
Still, observers say he commands a solid 20% core of support. Some of that may be the result of the undiluted populist propaganda that is fed relentlessly through the state media. And some of it may simply be old-fashioned pride and nationalism, emotions no less powerful and gripping in Yugoslavia than in any other country. But that loyal core is enough, in the words of one Serb, to allow Milosevic "to steal any election." It also gives him the causes and crises that make him irreplaceable. "We are for Slobo because he is for us," explained Velimir Djurica at his plumbing stall in Belgrade's black market last week. "The foreign boot must not be on us."
At once immoderate and capricious, Milosevic has made himself one of the West's most difficult enemies. Lessons learned from one encounter do not necessarily apply to the next. Washington concluded after Dayton, when NATO bombers seemed to bring him to the negotiating table, that he respected what he feared and would give in to force and threats. Milosevic learned something different: how to exploit the West's hesitation. Diplomats who thought that Dayton showed they "could work with him" discovered he rarely works well with anyone. He enjoyed his combat with Richard Holbrooke, whose status as special American envoy to the Balkans he considered worthy of attention. But he is said to detest Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as the archetype of all those trying to do in the Serbs. Pride drives the man, says a Western diplomat, "and rational analysis may not matter if he is humiliated in the process."
Certainly his Kosovo strategy has been confounding. In part, says a U.S. official, Milosevic seems closed off to reality. When negotiating, he relies on a mix of charm and tirades about the victimization of the Serbs. Says the official: "Every second sentence is wrong or a lie. He pours out his soul, but you don't know if he believes all that rubbish." He never says yes or no, never puts his own name to a formal agreement. While his vicious behavior in Kosovo has evoked comparison to Hitler, those who know him say Milosevic doesn't dream so large. "He wants to be the tinhorn dictator of Serbia forever," says a U.S. official. "Beyond that, nothing."
All these contradictions have kept Washington and its allies guessing. Few believe Milosevic's attachment to Kosovo is more than skin deep. Some Serbs say he stirred up the crisis to distract attention from the foundering economy. Yet in considering whether to placate the West or defy it, he is operating according to his own calculus of the risk to himself and his regime. The issue comes down to his feeling about the place where the myth of his own power was built. "He doesn't know," says a top U.S. official in Belgrade, "whether caving in makes him lose face to a point that challenges his power, or whether suffering the damage that would be inflicted on his security forces would undermine their control and their loyalty to him."
Many analysts have suggested that he wants to absorb enough punishment to provide cover for handing over Kosovo to international peacekeepers. "It's very Slavic," says the Russian observer. "He needs to be seen as compelled, so he can sell it to the 90% of Serbs who cling to Kosovo emotionally." But it is equally possible that he has something else in mind. Perhaps he thinks he can successfully endure all the bombing the West can muster and still continue to defy its plans for Kosovo, as his enemies exhaust their will before he exhausts his. "He truly believes he is tougher than the West," says a U.S. diplomat.
Milosevic has miscalculated disastrously before, but he has also brilliantly calculated his hold on power. Which will it be this time? There are those in Washington and Europe who hope that he has gone too far in presiding over death and destruction. Perhaps all those NATO missiles and bombs may finally convince the Serbs that they do not need Milosevic ruining their lives any longer. But reports from Belgrade suggest that the air attacks have Serbs rallying to Milosevic as never before. Once again, in Milosevic's Balkans, it is far from clear who has calculated best.
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