In 1989 a collection of speeches and interviews of Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, was published in Belgrade. His narrow intellectual horizons and limited vocabulary were obvious; the chapter titles, in their arrogant and hollow "simplicity," were reminiscent of Mao Zedong's Red Book. ("The difficulties are neither unexpected nor insurmountable"; "The difficulties should not be a reason to demobilize, but to mobilize ourselves"; "The future will still be beautiful, and it is not far away"; etc.)

Milosevic's dry, overcompressed sentences and his frequent use of ritual formulas made his style mechanical; the use of military vocabulary (mobilization, battle, war) gave the prose a rigid and belligerent tone. This ponderous text seemed to be very much in harmony with the author's large photograph on the book's cover. He appears stiff, inhibited, hierarchical-almost robot-like.

Yet the book was an instant success. A Serbian reading public that considered itself discerning had been seduced by a simplistic, almost naïve book, whose author seemed incapable of presenting a genuine vision of political and social life. To understand why a crude propagandistic tract became a national best-seller is to begin to understand why a former communist party apparatchik has been able to gain the support and adulation of millions of Serbs across Yugoslavia.

One secret of the book's success was that it addressed in a loud and clear voice the problem of Kosovo, which was of greatest importance to the Serbs. Since the late 1960s Serbs had been emigrating from this predominately Albanian province in the republic of Serbia; between 200,000 and 300,000 had left by the mid-1980s, many forced out by Albanian extremists. Many Serbs believed that the ruling communist party had done very little to stop this exodus.

They also resented the fact that the 1974 Yugoslav constitution had largely separated Kosovo, as well as Serbia's other province, Vojvodina, from Serbia. Kosovo and Vojvodina had their own representatives in the federal, state and party bodies, where most of the time they voted against Serbia. The two provinces also had the power to veto any changes in the Serbian constitution. Since the other five republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia) had complete sovereignty over their territories, Serbia believed that it had been singled out for unfair treatment under the Yugoslav constitution.

Through the 1980s the communist authorities in Kosovo, Serbia and Yugoslavia publicly acknowledged that interethnic relations in Kosovo were in a critical state, but they would not allow any free and open debate about them and avoided all pronouncements and policies that might stir up Serbian emotions.

Then in 1987 Milosevic appeared on the scene. He had been president of the Serbian party for only a little over a year when he began fearlessly to attend mass rallies, give speeches and interviews, and generally excite powerful nationalist passions. Immediately a great number of Serbs-communist, noncommunist and even anticommunist--started to gather around him, determined not only to protect the Serbian minority in Kosovo, but to suppress the Albanians and turn them into second-class citizens. Milosevic was soon acknowledged as a national leader. A partly orchestrated but mostly spontaneous cult began to develop around him, accompanied by suitable songs and jingles:

Slobodan, they call you freedom,

you are loved by big and small.

So long as Slobo walks the land,

the people will not be in thrall.

Milosevic had learned the secret of demagoguery in post-communist Europe. Far from transcending nationalism, as communism had taught, he embraced it eagerly. Once seen as a functionary of a discredited regime, he was now the voice of Serbian nationalism. As a result, by mid-1988 Slobodan Milosevic enjoyed a popularity greater than any Serbian political figure in this century.


Nothing in Milosevic's early life suggested he could ever ascend to such heights of power and popular approval. He was born in 1941 in Pozarevac, a town in Serbia that had a population at the time of about 20,000. He is of Montenegrin descent; to this day his brother declares his nationality as Montenegrin. Slobodan's father studied Eastern Orthodox theology and taught Russian and Serbo-Croatian language and literature at a local high school. His mother was also a schoolteacher, and in addition a dedicated communist activist. A strict, self-possessed woman, she brought up her children alone after her husband left her when Slobodan was still in elementary school.

Slobodan was an excellent pupil, and teachers considered him serious and reliable. He wore a carefully pressed dark suit to school, a white shirt and a tie, avoided sports and spent little time with friends. He published articles and poems in the school magazine and was politically active. While in high school, this prim loner met Mirjana Markovic, his future wife. She came from a leading communist family in Serbia and is still today a true believer.

Milosevic's father committed suicide in 1962, when Slobodan was a student at university. Eleven years later his mother did the same. (Her brother, a general, had also taken his own life.) Milosevic himself appears to have always been confident and assured, and the hopeful conjectures of his opponents that one day he might commit suicide as well have no foundation.

In his first year at the Faculty of Law, Milosevic became a close friend of Ivan Stambolic, a worker turned student who was five years his senior and embarked on a promising political career. In the ensuing years Stambolic would become Milosevic's mentor. Together they climbed toward the summits of power in Serbia, Slobodan always just one step behind Ivan.

Those who knew Milosevic as a young communist functionary, whether they are today his supporters or opponents, remember him as friendly, reliable and dynamic. He had a long spell in the world of business. He was a director first of a factory and then of a leading bank, commuting between Belgrade and New York. Without outstanding business acumen he was still a credible manager. He had a special talent for organization, and felt very much at home in the party machine. He was orderly and demanded order from his subordinates. He was also a firm believer in Titoist Yugoslav communism, though his loyalty appears to have been without idealism or illusions. He simply accepted communism as the only right way to rule and manage, rather than as a set of ideas and ideals, and showed a realpolitiker's keen appreciation of what power was and where it could be found.

The roots of the Milosevic phenomenon are to be found in the purge of the early 1970s, when Marshal Josip Tito politically expelled all leading reform-minded communists in Serbia. These so-called liberals were in favor of strengthening the market forces in the Yugoslav economy and allowing greater freedom of speech. They believed the party should withdraw from the realm of arts and culture and should promote young and able people to leading positions. To those democratic dissidents who wanted a European-style parliamentary democracy and a market economy, these efforts were half-hearted, excessively cautious, slow and inconsistent. Still, no one could dispute the fact that after the liberals' dismissal the political situation in Serbia deteriorated: political repression increased, as did the party's hold over the economy.

"Moral-political suitability," that is, membership in the party and dogmatic adherence to Marxism-Leninism, again became, as in pre-liberal times, a necessary requirement for any career in business, the media or education. Dissidents called moral-political suitability "negative selection," since in practice it meant that careerists and doctrinaires rose to the top. Milosevic, who made his career in the 1970s, was both a product and a successful practitioner of this negative selection.

Eliminating those with strong personalities from the Serbian party greatly weakened the opposition, should one man attempt to grab power once Tito was gone. While both the liberals and doctrinaire communists had fought against Serbian nationalism, the liberals had done so with greater intelligence and deeper conviction. When the party finally lost its faith, it was not only too weak to resist nationalism, but could not prevent itself from embracing it. By extinguishing all the creative forces within the League of Communists of Serbia, Tito had paved the way for someone like Milosevic to seize power. In a sense, Milosevic is a monument to Tito's policies.


After Tito's death in 1980, Milosevic was a consistent and seemingly convinced defender of Tito's legacy. Especially among the older cadres "little Slobo" had a reputation for being an uncompromising communist. When in 1984 his old friend Stambolic became the president of the League of Communists of Serbia, he appointed Milosevic as the head of the Belgrade party committee--a very important post because Belgrade was then the center of democratic dissent in Yugoslavia, and the party considered it full of "anticommunist reactionaries," "bourgeois liberals," "nationalists" and other enemies. Bourgeois liberalism directly challenged the party's monopoly of power and was therefore the most dangerous. But "great Serbian nationalism" was considered a threat too, since it easily excited popular emotions and because any tolerance shown by the party angered the non-Serbian communist leaders, especially the Albanians in Kosovo, but the Slovenian and Croatian ones as well.

Party conservatives were soon pleased with the way Milosevic policed this hotbed of opposition. He frequently attacked dissident intellectuals, firmly opposed all demands for liberalization, and punished any manifestation of Serbian nationalism. He also resisted any attempt by reformers to cut the excessive time devoted in schools and universities to the teaching of Marxism, promoted dogmatic professors at Belgrade University, and prevented the publication of books by politically proscribed authors.

In January 1986 Milosevic succeeded Stambolic as chief of the Serbian party when Stambolic became president of Serbia. He seemed to everyone a staunch party conservative, a kind of younger and more energetic version of Russia's Yegor Ligachev, ready to fight those communists in Yugoslavia who aspired to be Gorbachevs. By then the Slovenian and Croatian communists were beginning to introduce intra-party elections with more than one candidate, a major step toward multiparty elections. No one dared hope for such changes in Serbia, though only a few years later, there would be freedom of speech and the press in Serbia, as well as free elections. By this point the party would become the standard-bearer of Serbian nationalism and Milosevic the worshiped national idol.

Milosevic's sympathy for the plight of the Serbs in Kosovo was genuine. He is not simply a monster only interested in power, as many of his opponents characterize him. Yet other leading communists were also interested in resolving the Kosovo problem. The difference was that Milosevic found the strength to overcome the fear of the masses, so characteristic of any entrenched bureaucrat. Above all, he succeeded because he understood the power of fear and knew how to use it for his own purposes. Milosevic fundamentally transformed Serbian politics.

The mass movement of Kosovo Serbs developed spontaneously. It was not openly anticommunist, though it could easily have become so. Milosevic only gradually overcame his caution and started supporting it, but he was nonetheless the first leading communist to do so. With the help of the party-controlled media and the party machinery, he soon dominated the movement, discovering in the process that the best way to escape the wrath of the masses was to lead them. It was an act of political cannibalism. The opponent, Serbian nationalism, was devoured and its spirit permeated the eater. Milosevic reinvigorated the party by forcing it to embrace nationalism.


Titoist communism had been moderate compared to its East European, Asian and Caribbean counterparts: its economy was more market-oriented, its cultural policies more tolerant. Yugoslavs could travel freely to the West. But it was still a system based on fear. To challenge it often meant the loss of a job or imprisonment. In the 1980s, however, the press in Yugoslavia, as in other East European countries, grew increasingly iconoclastic; intellectuals became bolder in demanding respect for human rights, and the public was less willing to put up with the privileges and incompetence of its party leaders. The power of party committees was being eroded, and the party bureaucracy was frightened.

Milosevic's energetic way of dealing with issues ("this has to be done, so it is not a problem") and old-style party rhetoric encouraged the cadres. Milosevic was also not afraid to dismantle the typical communist forms of rule by party committee and police. He realized that the sheer spectacle of hundreds of thousands of people on public squares, waving flags and shouting slogans, could overpower any opposition and that many would believe that this was freedom. While Tito's communism tried to silence its opponents with fear, Milosevic allowed his adversaries to speak freely. He had discovered that nationalist propaganda could control and manipulate the masses even if information was not completely cut off. The media did not have to be censored so long as the major television network and the largest newspaper were under his control. And this he had accomplished by winning over the cadres in leading positions. Finally, he realized that most intellectuals would be reluctant to oppose a leader who appeared to be fighting for national goals.

Milosevic seems to have allied himself permanently with the politics of fear. He thrives on it and is always on the lookout for the hostility and conflict that produce it. This is one of the deeper causes of the Yugoslav civil war: Milosevic counted on war, the ultimate condition of fear, to unite Serbs around him. That is why he refused to look for political solutions to the persecution of Serbs in Croatia after Franjo Tudjman came to power in May 1990, and to the erosion of the Serbs' position in Bosnia-Herzegovina, after the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic became its president in November 1990. Milosevic welcomed the Serbs' increased sense of insecurity and was only too glad to plunge them into a war in which they would have only him for protection.

When Milosevic consolidated his power in 1987-88 neither the ordinary people nor the intelligentsia were afraid of him. Everyone, including Milosevic, somehow knew that the kind of fear that once existed under Tito could not be restored. Yet among the minority of Serbian intellectuals who were trying to resist Serbian nationalism, a new kind of fear began to spread-a foreboding that Milosevic's policies would lead to disaster.


In spite of his seemingly effortless mastery of mass demonstrations, since his rise to power Milosevic has rarely appeared in public or on television. He actually does not have exceptional oratorical or histrionic skills and knows that his political talent shines brightest in small meetings. He is definitely a "chamber politician" and is often described as the quintessential apparatchik.€ But while undoubtedly a product of the Yugoslav communist political machine, he lacks the docility and devotion to routine that a true man of the apparat should possess. He resembles, rather, a leader of some revolutionary conspiracy who works in secret, surrounded by mystery, and is permanently busy appointing and dismissing members of the central committee. Indeed, the selection of cadres is Milosevic's chief preoccupation. While the main criterion for promotion is loyalty to him, he also often moves people from one function to another to avoid their accumulating too much power. Finally, he rarely attacks his opponents directly, either within his own party or outside it. Like Stalin and Tito, he has his men for that.

At the beginning of 1988, just after Milosevic had consolidated his power, the Belgrade youth paper Mladost published a carefully compiled list of the hundred most prominent political figures in Serbia. By the beginning of 1993, only a handful of them remained in power. Milosevic had disposed of the others as they grew either too assertive or too compromised.‹ But he was not completely ungrateful. He gave most of them important and lucrative positions outside politics, mostly in business, and they continued to support him.

Milosevic's ruthlessness and skill in winning intra-party battles by using disposable proxies was most obvious when he eliminated from the presidency his old friend Ivan Stambolic. Without ever directly attacking him, Milosevic secretly won over Stambolic's cadres for himself and launched a media campaign against his closest political ally and personal friend. On September 23, 1987, the whole nation watched mesmerized a live television broadcast of the famous Eighth Meeting of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Serbia. Many leading communists were criticizing Stambolic's protégé, Dragisa Pavlovic, a member of the collective party presidency of Serbia and the leader of the Belgrade communists. But through Pavlovic, Stambolic's policies were attacked for being insufficiently resolute in protecting Tito's legacy and for not defending Serbian national interests, especially in Kosovo.

After more than 20 hours of debate, Pavlovic resigned from the collective presidency, and Stambolic was left in no doubt that the majority of Serbian communist leaders were against him. Soon afterward Slobodan would tell his friend Ivan: "I am sorry, but your position as the president of Serbia has become untenable." In December Stambolic asked the members of the collective presidency of Serbia to vote him out of office; in May 1989 the parliament of Serbia elected Milosevic as president.›

Five months after Stambolic's fall, his 24-year-old daughter died in a car crash. Milosevic decided to attend the funeral. He arrived upset and pale, and the two former friends embraced. (Mrs. Stambolic, however, would not even shake Milosevic's extended hand.) But the media, controlled by Milosevic, continued its brutal and spiteful campaign against Stambolic.

Milosevic's avoidance of direct confrontation is characteristic of all his political activities. He has never, for example, openly acted against anyone who attacks him. Nor has he ever publicly attacked or insulted Albanians or Croats or Bosnian Muslims in his speeches, and only a few of his remarks could be considered as incitements to war.


Finding the cadres in the communist party ready to fight his political battles was easier for Milosevic than winning over the Yugoslav People's Army. But circumstances helped--the officer corps was about 65 percent Serbian, and the Serbian majority grew as Slovenia and Croatia moved toward secession and their officers left the army. Slovenian and Croatian anti-army pronouncements also drove the army to look for a protector, and Serbia seemed the obvious choice. The anti-Serbian policies of President Franjo Tudjman's Croatian government reminded many Serbian officers, especially those who were themselves from Croatia, of the persecution and massacres of Serbs by Croatian fascists during the Second World War.

Nonetheless, it was a formidable task to transform the Yugoslav People's Army into the fighting arm of Serbian nationalism. The army, which saw itself as the protector of Yugoslavia and not of any national group, believed in the principle of "brotherhood and unity" (proclaimed during the Second World War by communist-led Partisans), and was permeated with Titoist communism.

From the moment he became the head of the Belgrade communists in 1984, Milosevic had deliberately adopted a political style meant to appeal to the military. He insisted on a combative spirit and a readiness to make sacrifices. Statements appealing to pride and dignity struck a deep chord both among officers and among the militaristic Serbs in the population. After 1987, when he dominated Serbian politics, the newspapers and television under his control defended the army from often justified criticisms by Slovenia and Croatia for authoritarianism and overspending. The language they used was taken directly from Tito's rhetoric, which helped to reassure the officers.

The army was the most antidemocratic and reactionary of all Yugoslav communist institutions. (It unofficially approved, for example, the attempted coup d'état against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991.) The army was impressed by the slowness with which Serbia under Milosevic's leadership was responding to the changes in Eastern Europe and in other parts of Yugoslavia. It was not until July 1990 that Milosevic renamed the League of Communists of Serbia-calling it the Socialist Party of Serbia-and not until December 1990 that Serbia held its first free elections, eight months after Slovenia and seven months after Croatia.

The armed forces are now formally commanded by Dobrica Cosic, the president of Yugoslavia (which now consists only of Serbia and Montenegro), but Milosevic has controlled them since the Yugoslav civil war broke out in 1991. By now he has consolidated his power over the armed forces by retiring about one hundred generals and admirals, though never, of course, openly. He has asked for no resignations nor in any way directly involved himself with the military.


The world should not have been so surprised by the outbreak of the Yugoslav civil war. While not inevitable, it was never very remote either. Among the various national groups of Yugoslavia, as among those of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe, nationalism has been the most powerful ideology since the middle of the nineteenth century. It has no rival either in mobilizing power or in its capacity to inspire self-sacrifice. Its essence is a pseudo-romantic and mythologizing ethnocentrism, whose corollary is the demand for ethnic homogeneity within a centralized and militarily powerful state.

The main carrier of nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe is the intelligentsia. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment reached those parts of Europe only in diluted form and was never fully accepted by the relatively small, educated middle classes. In addition, the main employer of the intelligentsia was the state-as it still is today. Finally, the absence of deeply rooted liberal democratic institutions allowed little room for the development of a genuinely pluralist political culture. All these factors combined to make the intelligentsia less liberal and rationalist than it was in the West, and always ready to sacrifice its liberal democratic aspirations at the altar of "national interest." Pre-civil war nationalist emotions were no more powerful in Yugoslavia than in many other countries of Central and Eastern Europe, but because Yugoslavia's groups were territorially more intermixed and because there was no general agreement on where the borders between them should be drawn, once the secessions began the chances for a peaceful solution were minimal.

Serbian nationalism, in the authoritarianism and exclusivism epitomized by Milosevic, is very similar to the Croatian nationalism of Franjo Tudjman and the nationalism combined with Muslim radicalism of Bosnia-Herzegovina's President Alija Izetbegovic. All three have contributed to the destruction of Yugoslavia. But Serbian nationalism does have some distinguishing traits. First among them is historical nihilism. The Serbs, more than any other nation of the former Yugoslavia, are fully convinced that history has treated them unfairly. They feel that because they had the largest casualties in the two world wars they deserve special credit for the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 and for its resurrection in 1945. Yet instead of being grateful, their non-Serbian fellow Yugoslavs have conspired against them from the beginning, undermining Yugoslav unity, often at the Serbs' expense. Serbs firmly believe that the ultimate goal of Yugoslavia's other groups was always to create separate states, in two of which (Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina) the Serbs would become persecuted national minorities.

This nihilistic view, that history has never rewarded the Serbs for their noble idealism, but instead has punished them with humiliation and suffering, has been combined with the conviction that international factors in the contemporary world have also conspired to deprive the Serbs of their legitimate rights.

The foremost creators of this bitter national ideology were the intellectuals. By far the most influential among them was Cosic, a widely read novelist, prominent dissident and now president of Yugoslavia. It is impossible to know if the intelligentsia realized how much self-pity, anger and hatred its ideas would generate once they reached the Serbian masses. Many intellectuals now complain that their views were distorted by Milosevic's irresponsible and opportunistic media. Yet it is clear that an ideology with such a dark vision of history and the contemporary world could only lead to ruthless and cynical policies.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia would have been a major historical shock for the Serbs even under the best of circumstances, and they would have had every right to be concerned with the welfare of their kin in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. But with a more rational, self-critical and tolerant national ideology, they might have tried to solve their national question through peaceful negotiation rather than by grabbing land with military force.

Although generally a very careful and patient politician, Milosevic is ready to take risks. He therefore boldly seized the opportunity and appropriated for himself and his party the nationalist ideology that the Serbian intelligentsia had assiduously developed. Essentially an ideological eclectic and a political opportunist, he had no difficulty changing his political stripes from communism to nationalism and adapting his political style to fit the image of a national leader. He appeared robust and masculine and conspicuously self-confident; he hid his vanity and self-importance under a facade of modesty and austerity. This exaggerated pretense of Roman gravitas worked well with the Serbs only because the intelligentsia had previously imbued them with intense nationalism, and they were seeking an omnipotent leader.

Although Milosevic is still the politician with the largest following in Serbia (he won with relative ease the last elections in December 1992), he is no longer a generally accepted national By December 1990 the results of the first free elections made it obvious that he was already losing popularity, and in March 1991 mass demonstrations in Belgrade showed that many opposed his rule. His influence today is largely based on the inability of the opposition to find an effective leader and unite around him. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia also has the advantage of having inherited all the possessions and political machinery of the communist party, so it is both richer and better organized than its rivals.

Milosevic's social base is narrowing. The intellectuals have abandoned him, along with the students. They have both been alienated by his obsession with personal power, obstruction of any attempts to introduce genuine reforms into Serbia's political and economic system, and above all by the brutality and long duration of the civil war. The workers are also dissatisfied with Milosevic's demands that they disregard the spiral decline of their wages for the sake of Serbian patriotism. In general, the younger and better educated city-dwellers are moving away from Milosevic, while the pensioners and the countryside still support him.

Paradoxically, Milosevic has been helped by the international embargo on trade, air traffic and cultural exchange that the United Nations imposed on Yugoslavia (that is, on Serbia and Montenegro) in May 1992. Even those Serbs free of nationalist passions felt that the Western approach to the Yugoslav crisis lacked balance-it recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992, just a month after it had declared its independence, without any consideration for the rights of Serbs there and, once the war started, disregarded Muslim responsibility for the crisis and the fact that fully one-third of Bosnia-Herzegovina was conquered by the regular troops of the Croatian army.

Milosevic is now one of the most mistrusted politicians in the world--Warren Zimmermann, the last American ambassador to Yugoslavia, described him as "the slickest con man in the Balkans." Milosevic, who always made careful estimates of the intentions, interests and power of both his opponents and his allies, has apparently underestimated the entire international community. Yet Milosevic can be trusted, not because he has undergone a sudden conversion and become a sincere champion of peace, but simply because he is scared.

Milosevic now realizes that despite his political acumen and brutal methods, he has failed to unite all Serbs into one state, since the international community is refusing to recognize any changes by force of borders between Serbia and Croatia and between Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He is also aware that Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina will not be allowed to keep almost two-thirds of this former Yugoslav republic that they have conquered. Milosevic is afraid for his power and perhaps also for his life. That fear, which had been his faithful ally in manipulating the Serbian masses and in winning over party cadres and the Yugoslav army, has now turned against him.

Essentially an opportunist, Milosevic is now ready to make genuine compromises. But it may be too late for that. In spite of his support for the Vance-Owens peace plan, an overwhelming majority of Bosnian Serbs totally oppose it-as the mid-May referendum clearly showed. The Vance-Owen plan proposes the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into ten units and gives Serbs considerable autonomy in those units where they would be in the majority. Yet it also demands that Serbs return to Muslims almost half of the territory they now control and preserves Bosnia-Herzegovina as a unified state with a multiethnic government.

Bosnian Serbs are undoubtedly greedy to want to keep as much territory as possible. But this is not the main reason for their obstinacy. The fear of living with Muslims and Croats in any form of a common state is a much more important reason. And this fear, for which Milosevic bears great responsibility, is proving stronger than either Milosevic's authority as president of Serbia, or his threats to cut all transport, except for food and medical aid, from Serbia into Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Nationalist extremists in Serbia increasingly consider Milosevic a traitor, and yet the numerous Serbs who have been against him are not coming over to his side. The world is skeptical of his newly found role as peacemaker and will expect many more proofs of his peaceful intentions before it readmits Serbia into the international community. The man who not so long ago had united most Serbs around him by the ruthless exploitation of fear has now lost control of that fear and is increasingly alone.

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