Milosevic: A Biography
Adam LeBor, Yale University Press. 448 pages.
The subject of this book is a vile parallel to Gertrude Stein’s oftcited description of Oakland, Calif.: “there’s no there there.” Residents of the former Yugoslavia, who tend to black humor in any event, as well as journalists who covered the atrocious wars accompanying that country’s disintegration, will know the challenge facing British journalist Adam LeBor in producing a biography of Slobodan Milosevic.
A good biography requires a personality with some distinguishing features, and of such characteristics Milosevic has none. In the gallery of 20thcentury monsters, he is by far the blandest. He lacks the diabolical fury of Hitler, the conspiratorial malice of Stalin, the heartless utopianism of Mao, the ruthless vanity of Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro.
Even the Bosnian Muslims and Albanians, whose families were deliberately slain as a product of his policies, hate him less than they do his henchmen: the wild-haired poet Radovan Karadzic, the porcine general Ratko Mladic, and the late gangster Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan. And everyone in every part of what was once Yugoslavia — including the most fanatical Serb extremists — hates Milosevic’s wife, the unrestrained defender of communism Mira Markovic, more than they will ever hate the man himself.
One cannot hate Milosevic because one cannot hate a void. Mr. Le-Bor admits, even emphasizes, the nullity of Milosevic as a man, pointing out that he was early on judged unremarkable by his rivals, who dubbed him “the grey blur.” With no insight to be provided into the man, Mr. Le-Bor tells instead the story of Yugoslavia’s collapse but with the title figure at center stage.
Slobodan Milosevic rode the Balkans’ historical forces — once they were unleashed — like the driver of a vehicle with no brakes. It is doubtful he ever believed in Serbian nationalism, as his Croat counterpart Franjo Tudjman cleaved to the cause of a revived Croatia; nor was Milosevic a devout adherent of the Serbian Orthodox faith in the way Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic was a sincere Muslim.
Milosevic’s intention was simple: to perpetuate the Stalinist partystate that had vanished everywhere else in Eastern Europe. In that interest, Serbian nationalism, and the unspeakable crimes that it brought about, were means, not ends. He and his wife believed more in Titoist Yugoslavism than in Serbian mythologies. All was pretext to hang onto power and privilege.
The one visceral hatred Milosevic seems to have shared with his brutal minions was of Albanians. Mr. LeBor quite correctly observes that among Serbs, “Croats were feared and Bosnian Muslims looked down on…(But even) sophisticated Belgrade liberals were often dismissive of Albanians, regarding them as primitive and backward.” Milosevic, after a few brandies, once described to Wesley Clark, with relish, a pogrom carried out by Serb Partisans against Albanian rebels in Kosovo in 1946: “It took several years, but we killed them all.” Mr. LeBor cites this anecdote as an example of his subject’s casual bias. What he does not realize is that the horrors of 1946, as much as any later acts of Serbian Communist repression, led directly to the Albanian uprising of 1998.
Mr. LeBor’s clumsy handling of Jewish issues in the Yugoslav tragedy is a good illustration of the challenge facing writers about the Yugoslavian conflicts, who must have a mastery of complex historical events. He notes that both Croatia and Serbia sought “to manipulate Jewish public opinion, both domestic and international.” Belgrade’s gambit consisted of establishing a Serbian Jewish Friendship Society, headed by a shady dentist, Klara Mandic, who toured the United States preaching anti-Catholic hatred and loudly proclaiming that Serbs had never been anti-Jewish. (Ms. Mandic, after involving herself in financial swindles, was murdered in Belgrade in May 2001.)
Mr. LeBor notes that a Serbian puppet regime helped the Nazis exterminate Jews. In Croatia, better-known assistance in genocide was provided to the Nazis by the Ustasha regime; Tudjman responded to the problem of Croatia’s reputation by assiduously pursuing diplomatic relations with Israel and purging a healthy chunk of the nonsensical scribblings about Jews from his public writings. But what Mr. LeBor doesn’t grasp is that Jews in the warring former Yugoslav republics rallied to their potential protectors: Many Croatian Jews defended Tudjman; many Serbian Jews supported Milosevic; and Bosnian Jews were divided.
For Milosevic, the Kosovo crisis and the ensuing NATO bombing of Serbia were an opportunity. He doubted NATO would act effectively, and in Mr. LeBor’s words, “believed his regime could withstand some ‘polite’ bombing, which could even strengthen his domestic support.”
Milosevic miscalculated on Kosovo. He did not think the NATO bombing would be a serious military effort. He thought it would involve a few symbolic bombs dropped. And he had no idea his infrastructure would be effectively crippled, as it was. His regime capitulated within three months of the commencement of NATO’s bombing campaign, and Kosovo was taken over by the United Nations. Today it is kept in a wretched state of economic underdevelopment complicated by unresolved ethnic resentments.
The resolution of Mr. LeBor’s tale is more banality. In Serbia, the Clinton administration organized a clandestine “revolution” that replaced Milosevic with Vojislav Kostunica, a so-called dissident who was actually a more fanatical Serb chauvinist than Milosevic, though one not directly implicated in the most hideous aspects of the regime. Another, more fashionable “dissident,” Zoran Djindjic, who had participated gleefully in the assault on Bosnia, rose to power in Belgrade and was murdered by the mafia. Karadzic, Mladic, and other wanted war criminals permanently “evade” arrest by U.N. troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The ghastly, often-inconceivable martyrdom visited on the region in the 1990s, and the lives of the leading figures in that drama, still await a definitive chronicler. Serbia has become the black hole of Europe, as empty as the conscience and consciousness of Slobodan Milosevic. He remains its once and future hero, even while on trial at the Hague, for the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia does not pronounce death sentences. Who is to say he will not serve, for another few decades, as a symbol of Serb self-pity?
Mr. Schwartz’s next book, “Sarajevo Rose,” a study of Balkan Sephardic culture, will be published in 2005.