The scene inside Belgrade's White Palace, home of Serbian kings, had a distinct quality of irrationality.
The special American envoy, Richard Holbrooke, had flown to Belgrade to deliver an ultimatum to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic. But Milosevic was in no mood to compromise. He would defy the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the mightiest military alliance in the world. He would not sign a proposed NATO peace treaty for the war-torn Serb province of Kosovo that would mean accepting foreign soldiers on Serbian soil.
"Look, are you absolutely clear in your own mind what will happen when I get up and walk out of this palace that we're now sitting in?" Holbrooke asked.
"You are going to bomb us," replied the president with a coldness on his broad face.
"That's right," said Holbrooke.
Only Milosevic knows for sure what was going on in his mind as he took that fateful decision. Did he think the United States and its NATO allies were bluffing? Was he worried about being deposed if he permitted foreign troops on his soil? Was he concerned about his place in history? Or did he succumb to the demons in his soul to risk a national suicide for the sake of his pride and his power?
Whatever the truth, there was something symbolic about his defiance, something very Serbian in inviting a great tragedy without making a last-ditch attempt to reach the compromise needed to avert ruin. In the historical myth seen as defining the Serb character, the Serb medieval prince, Lazar, similarly decides to accept defeat by the Turks. In return, in songs and stories recounted in Serbia to this day, he gains the glory of the everlasting kingdom of heaven, having allowed no compromise of his nation's honor.
A few hours after Holbrooke shook hands and departed the palace, Milosevic's prime minister went on national television to declare a "state of immediate threat of war." The British Embassy lowered its flag, and other Western embassies, including that of the United States, announced they were closing down. Only Italy and Greece kept their embassies open. A strange feeling of dizziness hung in the air, as if the whole country had been awakened from a deep sleep to find itself poised above an abyss.
As war panic swept the city the next day, the Serb parliament held a day-long televised session of patriotic oratory in support of Milosevic's self-destructive course. As was his habit, the president kept silent.
Two days later, on March 24, 1999, the first bombs fell on Yugoslavia.
Over the next three months, as the air strikes intensified, Kosovo escalated from an ethnic conflict into the most serious crisis of the NATO alliance, which threatened its very future. Milosevic achieved a sort of negative apotheosis as he was vaulted onto the world stage by some malignant destiny.
Enraged world leaders referred to him in the starkest terms -- "the heart of darkness," "an evil dictator," "Europe's new Hitler." Yet he remained resolutely in the shadows, allowing no one, not even his own people, a glimpse into his soul and purposes, drawing a veil around his persona.
The world might never have heard of Slobodan Milosevic, then a gray Communist apparatchik, if he had not been sent in 1987 to the southern Serbian province of Kosovo to mediate what was considered a minor incident in a dispute between the ethnic Albanian majority and minority Serbs. Television footage makes it clear that he was uncertain and apprehensive; fear was evident on his face as he tried to calm a mob of Serbs complaining that Albanian police were mistreating them. But when he uttered the words "No one will ever dare beat you again!" his course was set.
The crowd rewarded him as a hero. It did not matter that his little speech was almost embarrassing in its coldness, with not a breath of spontaneous feeling in the words. What mattered was that he had broken the taboo of the late Communist dictator, Marshal Tito, against invoking nationalism -- a taboo credited with submerging ethnic hatreds and holding Yugoslavia together for more than forty years. He had legitimized the venting of Serb ethnic grievances against the Albanian majority.
This might have been the end of him, for he was promptly criticized by his colleagues in the Communist leadership of Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia's six republics. But the upsurge in his personal popularity was sensational; with that one speech, Milosevic discovered the intoxication, hitherto unknown to any of the Communists, of genuine popularity, and he was shrewd and cunning enough to exploit that popularity to gain power. By the end of 1987, he was the ruler of Serbia.
It was not an auspicious beginning to the reign of a man who foresaw ruling Yugoslavia -- not just Serbia -- into the twenty-first century. The initial impact was catastrophic: rabid ethnic nationalism swept all regions of Yugoslavia like a disease.
Two years after becoming Serb leader, Milosevic set off the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia in earnest -- fittingly enough -- at Kosovo Polje, a scene of ancient bloodshed. The date was auspicious: June 28, 1989, the six hundredth anniversary of St. Vitus Day, when the Serb nation -- and their prince, Lazar -- was defeated by the Muslim Turks on the Field of Blackbirds. After the defeat, the Serbs were ruled by the Turks for five centuries. During that time the battle acquired a mystical significance for the Serbs.
On that sun-drenched day in 1989, on the wide rolling field, almost 2 million people chanted: "Slobo-dan, Slobo-dan" as a freedom mantra. (The name "Slobodan" is derived from "freedom" in Serbo-Croatian.) It was the greatest gathering of Serbs ever; they came from all parts of Yugoslavia, from Europe, North America, and Australia. Milosevic descended from heaven in a battle-green helicopter to rouse the crowd to new heights of nationalist delirium as he paid homage to the dead of six centuries earlier.
Surrounded by black-robed, bearded Orthodox bishops atop an elaborate stage erected for the occasion, he presided at his own coronation, replacing communism with nationalism. Whirling maidens in national costumes danced as he was hailed as the reincarnation of Prince Lazar, who died at that very spot six hundred years earlier while resisting a superior Ottoman army. Never again, Milosevic told them. Nobody would ever enslave the Serb nation, vowed the new prince, who seemed a strong and forceful figure, a man who understood power and possessed the capacity to command.
At this point, he could have afforded to be generous and cast himself and Serbia in a new light. But instead he rattled his saber on that day, Serbia's most sacred, as he identified himself with a holy cause and invoked the spirit of violence.
Only when the cause was won could the saber be sheathed. "After six centuries we are again waging struggle and confronting battles," Milosevic said unflinchingly, staring straight ahead as if reviewing the troops. "These are not armed struggles, though that cannot yet be excluded."
The speech was repeatedly interrupted by the crowd, chanting verses adapted from epic poetry that conferred instant historic greatness on him:
Oh Tsar Lazar, you didn't have the fortune
To walk shoulder to shoulder with Slobo.
The setting and the occasion had been carefully chosen by the new Serb leader. Kosovo has provided the Serbs with their defining myths of nationalism, pain, and endurance in their songs and ballads. Serb children through the centuries have been taught the words of the long-forgotten bards who transformed the 1389 defeat into an entire moral universe in which Lazar's options are limited: on the eve of the battle, the prophet Elijah appears in the form of a gray falcon to bring Lazar a message from the Mother of God. He is offered the choice of a heavenly or an earthly empire. If he wants the first, he should prepare himself and the Serb Army for destruction. If he desires the second, he should defeat the Turks, or reach an accommodation with them.
Lazar weighs the choice in one of the ballads:
Kind God, what shall I do, how shall I do it?
What is the empire of my choice.
Is it the Empire of Heaven?
Or is it the empire of earth?
And if I shall choose the empire
And I choose the empire of earth,
The empire of earth is fleeting
Heaven is lasting and everlasting
And the Tsar chose the Empire of Heaven
Above the empire of earth.
Lazar opts for the kingdom of heaven, which is to say, truth and justice. The Serbs lose. The myth tries to explain their plight by insisting that Lazar made the morally correct decision; dealmaking, maneuvering, flexibility are to be spurned. At the same time, it calls on them to avenge the injustice of Kosovo. No sacrifice is too great for the ultimate good: to free the homeland from foreign rule.
In private conversations with foreign visitors, Milosevic was prone to dismiss Serbia's ancient obsession as "bullshit," yet he cleverly molded it to his political purposes. His propaganda cultivated a popular sense of victimization at the hands of foreigners. That was the source of his strength, apart from his consummate capacity for lying, intrigue, and secrecy.
But already by 1990, men of talent and substance began issuing warnings that Milosevic was leading the whole of Yugoslavia into disaster. His popularity had plunged; a huge crowd of demonstrators burned a large photograph of Milosevic in central Belgrade on June 13, 1990, shouting: "Red Bandits" and "Out with the Communists." And the man who had promised the Serbs three years earlier that "No one will ever dare beat you again!" now sent thousands of police with truncheons and tear gas against them. Among the injured was the novelist Borislav Pekic; he prophetically noted that the new despot would do anything to maintain himself in power.
By 1991, Milosevic could no longer take a walk in the streets of Belgrade: he was a hated dictator always surrounded by bodyguards in blue suits and dark glasses. When he was seen, a glimmer of a smile would flicker over his habitual scowl. In March 1991, he had to call in tanks, riot police, and tear gas to put down mass demonstrations against his rule.
When the neighboring republics of Croatia in 1991 and Bosnia in 1992 disintegrated into open ethnic warfare, Milosevic used intermediaries to foment and spread the violence, even as he presented the face of total non-involvement to the world. Relying on organized lying, his secret police and rogue proxies pushed the disintegration into a long bloodbath. The U.S. ambassador to Belgrade, Warren Zimmermann, saw in him the cool ruthlessness of evil. "Like most evil men he doesn't seem evil," he reported. "He could be charming, I have seen him charm American visitors."
But things didn't work out according to plan. By mid-1992, after a series of setbacks, Milosevic came close to being toppled from power. His policies and wars had turned Serbia into an economic disaster zone and a global pariah. A floodtide of war refugees was creating serious repercussions throughout Western Europe; the term "ethnic cleansing" had entered the vocabulary as a euphemism for barbaric intolerance, even genocide; the effect of UN sanctions on Serbia was hurting. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger publicly accused Milosevic of war crimes for his role in the Bosnian war, and indeed there was substantial evidence to justify bringing Milosevic before the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.
Had that happened, the world could have been spared Kosovo. But Milosevic managed to convince the world -- with assistance from various international diplomats -- that he had converted from warmonger to peacemaker. He was even made the "guarantor" of Bosnia's peace worked out under the agreement at Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. When the accords were signed, he shared the stage with President Bill Clinton and other high officials.
Ironically, the Dayton accords touched off growing unrest in Kosovo, which had been under police occupation since 1989. Dayton had addressed ethnic conflict in Bosnia but not in Serbia itself, and this failure to bring the plight of Kosovo to the international stage led younger Albanian leaders onto the path of military struggle for independence. By 1997, the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army had started the struggle which, for the most part, meant warfare in the shadows, ambush, assassination, murder, and torture, leaving in its wake a trail of destroyed towns, burned villages, and wrecked families. A year later, the guerrilla activities had reached significant proportions and elicited brutal Serb countermeasures.
Invoking the threat of air strikes, the Clinton administration pressured Milosevic to restore Kosovo's autonomy. U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton, was dispatched to Belgrade to broker a cease-fire. This was followed by "negotiations" at Rambouillet, outside Paris. The warring parties were required to accept a U.S.-drafted peace plan within two weeks, subject only to minor modifications.
It was a doomed enterprise. Despite the threat of NATO air strikes, Milosevic refused to bend.
The American initiative was based on Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's belief that Milosevic was likely to back down after an initial wave of air strikes, that he was a "schoolyard bully" who would cave in after a few punches. That was a serious misreading of both the man and the conditions in the region. Military and intelligence officials expressed doubts that airpower alone could bend Milosevic's will.
In their calculations, American strategists were guided by the Dayton experience, believing that Milosevic could be counted on to opt for an earthly empire and an accommodation in order to keep himself in power. But whereas Milosevic gave in on most of the demands of the Bosnian Serbs at Dayton, this time, he could not relinquish Kosovo -- which Serbs regarded as the heart of Serbia itself -- and hope to survive. He dismissed his generals when they confronted him with the sobering technicalities of the military balance. Milosevic was fatalism itself: war had been the way for him to hang on to his earthly empire -- war in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Bosnia, and again in Kosovo -- and he chose this path despite warnings that it would mean the physical destruction of Serbia.
The NATO ultimatum, with its uncanny echoes of the mythical message brought to Lazar by the gray falcon, presented Milosevic with an agonizing choice: he could accept a plan giving Kosovo Albanians home rule with a NATO force on the ground to supervise it (and virtually ensuring their secession after three years). Or he could stand up to a mighty foe and risk annihilation.
When NATO air strikes finally came in March 1999, Milosevic responded with the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo that brought his true nature to the surface. Whatever his past misdeeds -- the sowing of racial hatred that consumed Yugoslavia, waging wars against Croatia and Bosnia, his colonial subjugation of Albanians -- Milosevic's move to denude Kosovo of its Albanian population was one of the most cynical acts in Europe in the second half of a bloody century. In scenes that evoked images from the Holocaust, tens of thousands of Albanian refugees were herded out of Kosovo into neighboring countries while the United States and its NATO allies, with all their military power, watched impotently.
The NATO missile strikes and air bombardments were met with Serb defiance. Faced with a foreign assault, the people rallied around Milosevic and mocked Western claims that NATO had no quarrel with the Serbian people but only with their leaders.
Milosevic calculated -- correctly as it turned out, at least in the short run -- that the spectacle of a leader uncompromisingly rejecting a foreign ultimatum fitted the nation's psyche, much as Lazar had refused to accommodate to the Turks in 1389. There arose a wave of patriotic euphoria which projected Milosevic as the leader of a united people embarked on a holy cause. The nation's top military commander, speaking in the language of the myth, told his troops to "prepare for martyrdom."
But the air war began to grind down Serbia's will to resist. And Milosevic was undercut by his indictment by the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague on May 27 on charges of crimes against humanity. Thinking about his political survival, he concluded that months of additional bombing might utterly devastate Serbia and destroy the remnants of his support. On June 3, he capitulated, accepting a Western peace plan supported by Russia that was only a slight improvement on Rambouillet. The NATO air strikes continued until June 10, when a detailed agreement was reached on complete Serb withdrawal from Kosovo, which became in effect an international protectorate under NATO control.
Milosevic addressed the nation that evening from the ornate state room in the White Palace, saying, "we never lost Kosovo," and listing cosmetic provisions of the agreement to prove his assertion that "we have survived and we defended the country." His speech again tapped into the Serb mythology which casts heroic resistance as something like a victory. His party claimed he had inspired a small nation to a noble struggle against the world's mightiest military alliance.
At bottom, however, Milosevic was guided as much by Serb mythology as by some dark spirit inside his soul. Some forensic psychologists have speculated that Milosevic is a depressive, scarred by a family history of suicide and abandonment. With respect to NATO and perhaps his own people, he may be playing out a syndrome known as "suicide by cop" in which individuals provoke others to kill them. Certainly, he has instigated mighty forces -- external and internal -- against himself. If he leaves his country, he risks arrest and transportation to the Hague to face war crimes charges. A $5 million bounty, offered by the U.S. government to anyone providing information "leading to the arrest or conviction" of Milosevic "in any country," was bound to heighten his sense of isolation and danger. In Serbia, with the patriotic fever subsiding, his grip on power could weaken once the population grasps the full scope of the economic ruin. More than ever, his only support came from a large police force and an army that had withstood NATO's air assaults without cracking.
Milosevic's history in more than ten years as Serbia's ruler reveals a man whose only pleasure lies in controlling others. The psychologists surmise that he lives in a narcissistic, self-centered place where he is the sun and everything revolves around him. He does not think about what he will be doing five years from now, for he does not expect to live that long. Indeed, he seems not to care what happens after he is gone -- not about his legacy or his children, and certainly not his people. But he takes great pleasure in the attention he receives on the world stage.
One thing is for certain. He is not a man to go quietly. Slobodan Milosevic is the Saddam Hussein of Europe, doomed to wreak havoc and go to war -- as he has done repeatedly already -- in order to preserve his own power and distract his people's attention from repression and poverty. As long as he remains in power, he will be an impediment to stability in the Balkans. In little more than a decade, he has brought post-cold war Europe back to the matter that dominated the beginning of the twentieth century and led to World War I: the matter of Serbia -- the definition of the Serb nation, its borders, its destiny, and its leadership. In the process he has reawakened atavistic nationalist demons, bringing uncertainty to Europe at the dawn of the twenty-first century. To understand how that matter manifests itself, we must first understand the man who embodies it.
Copyright © 1999 by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson