The Butcher of the Balkans

  • From a leather chair in his spacious office in Belgrade, with a tin of his beloved cigarillos within reach, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic strives to keep the war at arm's length. In a rare interview, perhaps granted to deflect the blame for the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina, he contended that Yugoslavia's bloody dissolution stems solely from the secessionist demands of the other republics. "All processes in the contemporary world tend toward integration," he said. "Nationalistic tendencies are against that general flow, that big river, that Mississippi." Confused? There is this clarifying coda: "In Serbia nationalists are not in power."

    That is just double-talk. Of course nationalists are in power in Serbia, embodied in this pudgy-faced man with a belligerent jaw who has seized on generations of ethnic hatreds and resentments to turn what was Yugoslavia into a slaughterhouse. There are, as Milosevic rightly insists, "no innocent sides" in the civil war, nor is he the only unsavory populist who has emerged from more than four decades of communism. But he is far and away the most destructive. More than any other single person, Milosevic is responsible for the bloodshed by his unyielding determination to see all Serbs united in one country carved from territory the communists left -- fairly or unfairly -- to other republics. He is the power behind Radovan Karadzic, the militant leader of Bosnia's Serbs, and he has effective command of the old Yugoslav army; he could cool their operations if he were so disposed. But, says a European Community diplomat who has dealt with Milosevic intensively, "nothing interests him but Serbian success, even if it means tens of thousands of dead and dispossessed."

    There is not a flinch or a scruple when Milosevic talks -- which is how he continues to pursue his dream against a rising tide of international opprobrium and opposition in Serbia. In his view, it is neither the thundering artillery of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army nor the process of "ethnic cleansing" of Serbian regions in Croatia and Bosnia that has earned him the world's outrage. "Vested interests are behind this, and of course a very well-organized and well-paid media war," he says. "Today in Europe it is normal for the Vatican or Austria and Germany to support Croats. It's not normal if Serbs are supporting Serbs." This is the same sense of grievance that makes many Serbs portray themselves as victims encircled by foreign enemies, be it the Pope, an ascendant Fourth Reich or the hand of Islam.

    Milosevic is a throwback to the kind of violent nationalism that regularly rearranged Europe's borders in centuries past. But he is also a harbinger of what may happen elsewhere as the constraints of communism give way to long- suppressed emotions. His animating passion seems to be power, first and foremost, with national pride as a useful adjunct. Though a proven master of the art of communist careermaking, Milosevic has never been a slave to ideology. "All this talk of his Bolshevism is rubbish," says Slavoljub Djukic, author of a critical biography of Milosevic titled How the Leader Happened, which was published in Belgrade last month. "He is simply a man who loves power." Even his adoption of Serbian nationalism came only after he recognized its potential for personal advancement. Says Milos Vasic, a journalist for the Belgrade weekly Vreme: "If tomorrow he found it fit to be a Freemason, he'd be the grand master of the first Serbian lodge."

    Until five years ago, his life read like a Bolshevik parable, though shadowed by personal tragedy. He was born in 1941 in the town of Pozarevac, near Belgrade, where he still keeps a modest weekend home. His father was a seminary-trained teacher of religion from Montenegro and his mother a fervent communist; the two quarreled incessantly over ideological issues. Early on, his father abandoned the family, went back to Montenegro and later committed suicide. An uncle, a general in the army, died by his own hand as well. When Slobodan's mother killed herself in 1974, she reportedly left her devoted son distraught.

    While still in high school, Milosevic met his wife, the ambitious and intense Mirjana Markovic, whose family ranked among the most prominent communists in Serbia. When she was only a year old, her mother was killed by Tito's partisans after revealing information about underground communists to Nazi-backed police in Belgrade. Today Mirjana remains a powerful member of the hard-line League of Communists-Movement for Yugoslavia, which enjoys strong support within the army. She wields considerable influence over her husband. She zealously safeguards him by watching for any signs of disloyalty, real or imagined.

    The cleverest move Milosevic made in his years as an ambitious apparatchik was to hitch his star to Ivan Stambolic, a nephew of one of the most powerful Serbian communist leaders. For more than 20 years, Milosevic moved up the communist hierarchy in Stambolic's wake, succeeding him as director of the state-owned industrial gas conglomerate Tehnogas, as Belgrade chief of the Communist Party and eventually as boss of the Serbian Communist Party. When the time came to slough off his mentor in late 1987, he did so with ruthless precision. By 1989 he was the unchallenged president of Serbia and today presides over what is left of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Montenegro and the two provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

    Milosevic, says a European diplomat who knows him well, "is a brigand and a fanatic, but a sly, intelligent and sophisticated one." His ruthlessness has always been paired with competence and superficial charm. "He will convince you that he is a most reasonable and sympathetic individual," says a U.S. analyst, and his political instincts are remarkably shrewd. His arrival as head of the Belgrade party in 1984 ended a rudderless period of creeping liberalization, when the communists needed to solidify their grip on power after the death of Tito."What I liked most about him was that his desk was always empty -- he knew how to work," says Jurij Bajec, an economist now fiercely critical of Milosevic who once worked under him at Belgrade's largest bank and later followed him into politics. Although Milosevic talked about economic reform, he slapped bans on writers and gradually purged dissenting voices from TV Belgrade and the influential Belgrade daily Politika. "The party leaders had been in a panic over signs of liberalization," says Djukic. "Milosevic understood this, knew which card to play and succeeded in getting them behind him."

    The same unerring sense of where power lay served him again in late 1986, when a major fracas erupted over a secret memo drafted by members of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. These intellectuals articulated long- festering resentments over Tito's systematic undermining of Serbia's power, culminating in the 1974 constitution that gave far-reaching autonomy to Albanian-dominated Kosovo and to Vojvodina, which has a significant Hungarian minority. While other party leaders publicly condemned the nationalist tract, Milosevic remained silent, indicating that he shared its views.

    Less than a year later, he grabbed the opportunity to put his populism to work. He was dispatched to Kosovo, the southern province Serbs view as the cradle of their nationhood, where their complaints about mistreatment by the ethnic Albanian majority were on the boil. As angry Serbs tussled with police to enter a small meeting hall in Kosovo Polje, Milosevic emerged on a balcony to address the crowd with words that resounded throughout Yugoslavia: "No one has the right to beat the people!" In a show of personal courage, he strode out into the crowds to repeat the message, and the Serbs were galvanized.

    "From that day, the balance changed," says Bajec, who was then a member of the Serbian party's leadership. . "He knew how to touch the Serbs' national feelings. That became his main winning card, and he knew it would make millions come to hear him speak." He was a formidable presence at rallies throughout Serbia. "In less than a year," says Djukic, "he moved from being a second-rate politician to almost a god." And in the process, he purged the party of all opposition, turned television into an instrument of personal power and abolished the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

    The prospect of Serbian domination under the intolerant Milosevic helped speed the secession of Slovenia and Croatia, whose own fanatically nationalist leader fueled fears among the Serb minority there. It was as the savior of the Serbs who live outside Serbia's borders -- nearly one-third of the community -- that Milosevic entered the fray. His strategy has been simple -- and effective. He stirs up Serbs with talk of imminent genocide, then sets his proxies loose to "protect" them, with fatal consequences for Croats and Muslims. Yet he insists that his aim is not the creation of a Greater Serbia, only the preservation of Yugoslavia. "We don't want to be a puppet regime of any foreign force -- unlike some others in Yugoslavia," he says, referring to Croatia's close ties with Germany. "Our people want to be independent and free, nothing else."

    Few believe him. In August 1991 he openly declared his desire to secure under his control all parts of Yugoslavia populated by Serbs. His recent demurrals fly in the face of hard evidence that Serbia has orchestrated aggression first in Croatia and now in Bosnia. While Milosevic was insisting that no irregulars from Serbia proper were involved in the fighting, a local newspaper published photographs of the Belgrade guerrilla fighter known as Arkan in the war-torn Bosnian town of Bijelinja. "This whole business is far too organized just to be happening," says a Western diplomat in Belgrade. "Milosevic has proved time and again that he will lie when cornered."

    Though his own people are more and more dismayed over the war, Milosevic remains unshaken by the world's gathering wrath. "It is the totally wrong approach to pressure Yugoslavia to solve problems outside of Yugoslavia, in a situation in which we don't want to be involved," he says. His line is that since the newly constituted rump Yugoslavia has ordered its army out of Bosnia and turned the fight over to ethnic Serbs there, it is no longer Serbia's problem. But discouraged diplomats warn that nothing is likely to deter Milosevic from his goal of Greater Serbia. Says a U.S. analyst: "Where we're interested in peace, he wants to win."

    As Milosevic absolves himself of responsibility, how many more must die? Says a U.S. State Department official: "For him, the word compromise is a dirty word, meaning treason and surrender." Indeed, he appears to have hunkered down, convinced of his own righteousness. "We rejected the abolition of our country," he says. "If we have to be blamed for that, I am proud to be blamed for loyalty to my country." As hundreds die, thousands flee and Serbia faces international isolation, Milosevic's blame goes far beyond that.