March 13, 2006



Photo: (Tomislav Peternek/Polaris)

Having served two years in the Balkans with a humanitarian group in the mid-90s, and so having witnessed close hand the massive devastation that resulted from Slobodan Milosevic's crude use of nationalism to retain power in a post-communist Yugoslavia, it is fair to say his death in a cell room in the Hague leaves me little moved. Of course, I regret that he will not receive in person the likely harsh verdict of the international tribunal for his genocidal crimes.

P.S. Pictured above, by the way, the seminal moment in Milosevic's political transformation into nationalist demagogue, briefly sketched out in the NYT obit.

In that spring of 1987, Mr. Stambolic, the new Communist party leader in Serbia, dispatched Mr. Milosevic to Kosovo, the region in southern Serbia treasured by all Serbs as the heart of their medieval empire but which had by then fallen under the control of ethnic Albanians who made up some 90 percent of Kosovo's population.

Kosovo's Serbian minority claimed that the Albanians were continuing to drive Serbs from the province, where the legend of Serb sacrifice and victimhood was established in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks defeated Serbs on the battlefield at Kosovo Polje and began their 500 years of domination in the Balkans.

Tito, who had squashed Yugoslavia's simmering and powerful nationalisms, had died seven years earlier. The Albanians of Kosovo had violently rebelled against Yugoslav rule just months later, in the spring of 1981, and were smarting under the fierce suppression of that revolt.

Serbian nationalism, meanwhile, was simmering through the ranks of intellectuals and others in Belgrade.

Mr. Stambolic was nonetheless utterly unprepared for Mr. Milosevic to embrace this nationalism.

Instead of papering over the Albanian-Serbian dispute, Mr. Milosevic left a meeting of the mostly Albanian Communist leaders of Kosovo and wandered into a group of Serbian demonstrators in Kosovo Polje who were complaining that the police had used batons to push them back. Looking into the television cameras, Mr. Milosevic instantly vaulted into the Serbian consciousness by declaring, "No one will dare to beat you again."

The crowd turned from hostility to cheering, "Slobo, Slobo."

The apparently spontaneous incident was in fact carefully orchestrated by Mr. Milosevic. He had arrived in Kosovo the day before and talked with some of the people who planned to demonstrate. He took advantage of close ties to television managers to obtain coverage and to assure that his utterance would be captured and repeatedly rebroadcast throughout Serbia over the next few weeks, so that the refrain became a catchphrase.

Galvanized by this exposure, Mr. Milosevic mounted a campaign that soon became a full-scale cult of personality.

Pictures of the politician with his brushed back hedgehog haircut appeared everywhere. Mobs of "Slobo" chanters were shuttled from demonstration to demonstration. Newspaper editors and television commentators were primed to praise him. Jingles and songs were written, among them one that played on his first name, which incorporates the Serbian word for freedom.

"Slobodan, they call you freedom/ You are loved by big and small/ So long as Slobo walks the land/people will not be enslaved." [emphasis added]

The rest, as they say, was history. A grim and tragic one indeed. And let us not forget that Milosevic's savagery was of a particularly reprehensible strain, as it was very conscious, very methodical, very focused--all in the pursuit of really one thing in the main--his own self-preservation. Thus a rather dour, charisma-challenged apparatchik (though like many a self-respecting thug, he was capable of charming some of his Western interlocuters on occasion, when necessary), having discovered a mechanism to achieve and consolidate maximum power, and in the process falling wholly for the intoxications of a cult of personality, unleashed vicious ethnic cleansing and destabilized large portions of the Balkans for a decade plus. Hannah Arendt's phrase about the "banality of evil" seems somewhat of an apropos epitaph for Slobo too.

Posted by Gregory at March 13, 2006 04:13 AM | TrackBack (0)

Having nothing to disagree with about Greg's eulogy for Milosevic, I wonder if he would care to write one for his trial.

What can one say about a legal proceeding that drags on for so long that its principle object expires of natural causes? What verdict can be rendered on its designers?

And what should we say about responsible people who with full knowledge of the proceedings against Milosevic thought it wise to replicate them in Iraq? Saddam Hussein's trial is on its way to being comparable in length, and I wouldn't take a bet against Saddam's dying of natural causes before it ends.

Posted by: Zathras at March 13, 2006 04:52 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It would have been nice to see a 'speedy and public trial', as the Amendment says, but sometimes complicated cases take time, esp. when the defense is very busy concealing evidence and hiding witnesses.

It would also have been nice if Milosevic had been convicted, sentenced, and punished. But no one could say that his death was an enviable one; dying in custody is hardly enjoying the fruits of one's criimes.

I just hope the Serbs don't take another step into self-imposed isolation from reality by treating him as a martyr.

Posted by: Tad Brennan at March 13, 2006 03:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Americans have become so enamored with their particular form of adversarial justice. Yet it is broke enough to set a criminal like OJ free. You cannot be the dictator of a goverment which repeatedly commits atrocities and not be responsible, period, paper trail or no paper trail. If the world body does not require accountability but instead continues to exercise its western form of denial and theatrics in the pursuit of justice, demanding "proof beyond a reasonable doubt" for dictators who RULED through intimidation and brutality, it won't be long before dictators have developed the same savvy as corporate executives and the Slobodon trial will not be a joke, it will be the norm.

Posted by: hogan at March 13, 2006 05:16 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I like this phrase:

Milosevic's crude use of nationalism to retain power

Posted by: Ugh at March 13, 2006 11:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The apparently spontaneous incident was in fact carefully orchestrated by Mr. Milosevic.

where was Karl Rove in 1987?

Posted by: p.lukasiak at March 14, 2006 12:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I liked P. J. O'Rourke's observation on how Slobo flummoxed U.S. policymakers in the 1990s:

If we hoped to teach the world a lesson in Kosovo, we were very effective: Whenever there's injustice, oppression and suffering, America will show up six months late and bomb the country next to where it's happening.

Posted by: The Sanity Inspector at March 14, 2006 04:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thanks for this article. I am sure Milosevic is now in the very hot space reserved for him down in the lowest section of Hell! Such cynical use of murderous idealogy soley to retain his own power must have a very special punishment in the next world!

Posted by: David All at March 14, 2006 10:47 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Such cynical use of murderous idealogy soley to retain his own power must have a very special punishment in the next world!"

It happens time and time again...he exploited Serb nationalism that led to hundreds of thousands of dead. But who cares? The very adminstrations that so triumphed his downfall allowed genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, and the Congo.

"I just hope the Serbs don't take another step into self-imposed isolation from reality by treating him as a martyr"

And so what if they do? Who else cared about the Serbs? Granted he did so at the expense of others...but the Croats and Moslems revered their despotic and murderous leaders who went unpunished...why spite the Serbs this same honor?

Solobo will be remembered more for the end of the Westphalian order than his genocide...the formation of the ICC, the invasion of Iraq, the spreading of "democracy" all in the name of "never again". Yet when murder continues how will you stop it then?

Posted by: James at March 15, 2006 11:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I believe that picture is actually from the 1989 rally to commemorate the defeat of the Serbs in 1389. Milosevic's transformation, as noted above, actually came in 1987 at a local meeting with the Serb leadership in Kosovo. Check out the BBC's documentary on the breakup of Yugoslavia - it covers all this in fascinating detail.

Posted by: John at March 16, 2006 04:34 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Why anyone today would still insist on painting Milosevich as the bad guy is beyond me: he saw what the Muslims (Albanians) were up to and decided to put a stop to it -- these guys were never friends of the West and showed that quite clearly in their support of Nazi Germany during WWII (aided by the Catholic Croats!) The Serbs were on our side, as Churchill quite rightly recognized when he helped to supply them (Tito) with arms. We played up to the Muslim world in that whole Bosnian misadventure --what did it gain us? The TOWERS, the PENTAGON and the disaster in IRAQ. Yes there is very little difference between Saddam and Slobodan -- they were both secular Nationalists who wanted to keep the fundamentalists in check: Shiites in one case, Albanians in the other. So where are we now? With the Shiites and 'Albanians' as "friends" even though we know they hate us as much as the Israelis! But of course, Nationalism is BAD unless it is American Nationalism [in a multi-cultural state, of course!]

Posted by: Secher, H.P. at March 17, 2006 10:20 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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