For a man who destroyed his country and wrecked or stole hundreds of thousands of lives, Slobodan Milosevic is an oddly colorless villain. When he was Serbia’s head of state, his public appearances were wooden and dull. He made no particular display of his wealth, never (unlike Turkmenistan’s flamboyant Saparmurat Niyazov, for example) renamed the months of the year for himself or his mother, built no monuments to his hubris and always kept his private life a cipher. No cult of personality kept Milosevic in power; he managed that instead with force, cunning and the systematic exploitation of divisions and weaknesses within the Serbian opposition. Among ordinary Serbs, the name Milosevic often seemed not to connote a man so much as some looming, inanimate force. Serbia under Milosevic was Serbia under a dark, expansive cloud. All that mattered was getting out from under Milosevic, the way you’d want to get out from under a collapsing roof.
London Times correspondent Adam LeBor’s excellent new book, Milosevic: A Biography, does little to humanize the doughy-faced enigma who now stands trial for genocide at The Hague. One will not read this book to get a feeling for Milosevic’s presence in a room, or the patterns of his speech, or the contours of his thought. We already knew that Milosevic’s parents were both suicides; that he was an intense, unhappy child; that his wife, Mira Markovic, was his childhood sweetheart and co-conspirator; that he rose to power by stabbing his mentor, Ivan Stambolic, in the back. Beyond that LeBor will not tell us what makes Slobodan Milosevic tick, or why that driven, unhappy boy, unlike so many others who could be similarly described, became the architect of no end of misery in the country of his birth. Like many unauthorized biographies, in other words, LeBor’s book circles an absent center. As a result, what LeBor has written is not a character study but a history of the disintegration of Yugoslavia through the lens of Serbian politics.
Many, many histories have been written in the decade and a half since Yugoslavia began to crumble. Nearly all such accounts acknowledge Belgrade politics as the driving force behind the chain of wars, but few do as good a job as this one of understanding those often complex maneuverings and weaving Serbia’s experience into the experience of the region as a whole. As LeBor seamlessly demonstrates, Milosevic’s degradation (economic, cultural, moral) of his own republic had everything to do with the sufferings he inflicted outside of it. The picture that emerges, though, is not one of an invincible mastermind with an iron grip on events. Rather, Milosevic looks like a man whose personal, small-minded quest for power unleashed forces he could best control by unleashing even uglier forces, ad infinitum. By the end the Serbian state and society were so deeply criminalized that high-ranking members of the regime were assassinated by mafia men in broad daylight at Belgrade cafes. Those mafia men were often the same paramilitaries the Milosevic regime had trained and equipped to ethnically cleanse Croatia and Bosnia. Milosevic’s sinister henchmen in Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, embarrassingly defied him and, LeBor implies, may even have carried out the appalling Srebrenica massacre not on his orders but intoxicated by their own bloodlust. Milosevic could not put the genie back in the bottle, even when he desperately needed to in order to put an end to the international sanctions that were threatening his regime.
Milosevic may have been sociopathically cruel, but he was not a mad, grandiose, out-of-touch dictator à la Saddam Hussein. For that he kept his self-interest too conspicuously in view. In his diplomatic dealings he was cordial, seemingly reasonable, even voluble and charming, knocking back whiskeys and sometimes bursting into song. LeBor depicts a man who loved the attention he got from heads of foreign states and high-level envoys. He had a particular fondness for America and Americans, having visited New York during his days as a banker. At the 1995 Dayton negotiations that ended the Bosnian war, Milosevic’s bonhomie stood him in good stead next to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman’s stiff formality and the guilt-inducing lugubriousness of Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic. In spite of being obviously in the wrong, Milosevic may have won himself and the Bosnian Serbs more concessions than they were due, simply by dint of being pleasant. Indeed, LeBor takes American dignitaries to task for negotiating in good faith with the man otherwise known as the Butcher of the Balkans; for taking him as their interlocutor even during the brief period when more reasonable men occupied responsible positions within his government; and for viewing him as the solution to the problem of which he was also the cause. In mounting his defense at The Hague, Milosevic is expected to call as witnesses the Americans with whom he once dined and negotiated, during the very period when the crimes of which he stands accused were committed. This ought to be a disconcerting development, in LeBor’s view. Much of the evidence arrayed against Milosevic consists of American intelligence that was surely available at the time.