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Anatomy of a Murderer

Two types of explanation are regularly put forward concerning Slobodan Milosevic and the many misdeeds associated with his name. The first regards him as a man who is solely responsible for everything that occurred in the wars of Yugoslav secession and whose removal would return Serbia to sanity. The other contends that Serbs are a tribe of fanatic nationalists with a long history of violence against their neighbors and that his removal would not mean very much since someone equally rotten or far worse would immediately take his place. In their new biography of Milosevic, Dusko Doder and Louise Branson offer both of these explanations at different times, leaving it unclear how much weight the reader is to give one or the other. While they often suggest that Serbs have an insular, self-righteous, and delusional view of history, they also, as good journalists, tell a more complicated tale whose various implications and contradictions the authors do not seem to understand fully.

I was mulling this over when I happened to see a photograph of young Milosevic on the cover of a recent issue of a Belgrade weekly (see illustration on this page). In it he is nineteen and his future wife is eighteen. The two are sitting in the bleachers of a sports stadium, neatly dressed and attractive-looking. Here, one thinks, are two well-brought-up young people. They study hard in school, help old ladies cross the street, and are shyly in love with each other. There must be thousands of such snapshots, from all over former Yugoslavia, of innocent youths who ended up murdering their neighbors. Their faces give no hint of the horrors and tragedies of the last nine years, the hundreds of thousands exiled and killed, the cities and villages lying in ruin. Like so many others who were born in former Yugoslavia, I have difficulty believing that what happened really happened. I know of many explanations, but not one of them, as far as I’m concerned, tells the whole story.

The man whom the Western press and television regularly compare to Hitler was born on August 22, 1941, in Pozarevac, a town an hour’s drive east of Belgrade, best known for its penitentiary where many anti-Communists were locked up after the war. His father was an Orthodox priest and his mother a schoolteacher. Earlier that year they had moved with their three-year-old son, Borislav, from Montenegro to Serbia. The Nazis had occupied Yugoslavia in April after a coup by Serbian officers who overthrew the government on March 27 and nullified the neutrality treaty signed forty-eight hours earlier with Hitler. Jubilant crowds then roamed the streets of Belgrade chanting, “Better war than the pact.” Hitler reacted instantly. The city was heavily bombed on April 6 by the Nazis in what was called “Operation Punishment” and Yugoslavia was quickly overrun by the German, Italian, Hungarian, and Bulgarian armies.

My own father and grandfather regarded the coup as a heroic act in the noblest Serbian tradition. It was a matter of honor to them. We could not abandon our World War I allies, England and France, as they faced the Nazi armies. My mother, to the very end of her life, thought the coup was one of the stupidest decisions Serbs ever made. That same spring and summer in Serbia there was an uprising against the Nazis by both the monarchists led by Mihailovich and the Communists led by Tito. Civil war broke out between them and spread into Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Croatian fascists were already massacring Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies.

It is astonishing to realize that most of the 700,000 to 800,000 Yugoslavs who died during World War II were killed not by Nazis but by their own people. In the village near Belgrade where my mother and I used to visit my grandfather, we woke up every morning in 1944 to the news that someone had been found murdered. Since each one of the warring factions had its preferred ways of execution, we would try to guess who did it by how it was done. Families were divided, different members taking opposite sides. Ours certainly was. There were stories of monarchist fathers executing their Communist sons in Montenegro, of children shooting their parents. The tragedies of the last ten years cannot be understood without taking into account the lasting animosity this bloody civil war had created among Serbs.

Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic’s wife, is a child of those terrible times. Her mother, a member of a well-to-do family, was a student of French at Belgrade University, where she met and had an affair with a student who was already a senior member of the illegal Communist Party. Their daughter, Mirjana (or Mira, as she is called), was born in 1942, “the bastard product of wild partisan orgies in the woods.” This was said a few years ago by Danica Draskovic, the wife of Vuk, the opposition leader. Mira was soon afterward sent to stay with her grandparents in Pozarevac so that her mother could continue her work in the Communist underground in Belgrade. Her mother was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and tortured. Soon after, when numerous prominent Party members were arrested and their network was destroyed, the suspicion arose that she had talked. Communists claimed that she was executed by the Gestapo. The more likely version is that she was killed by her comrades and that the truth about her betrayal was covered up to protect her lover, who was by then a general and a war hero.

Milosevic was four when the war ended and the Communists came to power. He grew up in the hungry, poverty-stricken years dominated by secret police terror and Communist indoctrination. His mother joined the Party. His father, now a defrocked priest, did not. He abandoned the family and returned to Montenegro to teach Russian. Both parents eventually committed suicide, the father in 1962 by blowing his brains out after the suicide of a student to whom he had given a failing grade, and the mother in 1972, for less clear reasons, by hanging herself from the light fixture in their living room.

Mira, too, was abandoned by her father. He started a new family and left her in Pozarevac to be raised by her grandparents, seeing her rarely and keeping her at a distance. It’s not surprising that in high school Slobodan and Mira were inseparable. By all accounts, she was the bitter one, while he struck everyone as modest and otherwise unremarkable. At the age of eighteen he joined the Party and she followed him a year later. At Belgrade University, where he studied law and she sociology, he began his climb up the Party ladder through various student organizations. This was how discipline and the arts of duplicity and political survival were taught to future apparatchiks.

Doder and Branson usefully trace Milosevic’s career, showing that he did well from the start. Within three years, he was already on the Party payroll as an activist in charge of ideology. He quickly grasped the importance of having a powerful sponsor, someone on whose coattails he could advance, and he found one in Ivan Stambolic, who came from an old Communist family. Ivan’s uncle, Peter Stambolic, was one of the top officials in the country. Ivan was five years older than Milosevic, but they quickly became close friends at Belgrade University. With his family connections, Stambolic advanced rapidly. After graduation, he became the director of the State Energy Company, then the director of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, then the secretary of the Serbian Central Committee, and soon after, in 1975, the prime minister of Serbia.

He did not forget his pal Milosevic, and helped him obtain a series of progressively more important Party positions. He became the head of the information department of the city government, then he replaced Stambolic himself as the director general of the State Energy Company, and finally, in 1975, he was appointed the president of Beobanka, the largest state-run bank. It is through such favoritism, of course, that Communists everywhere rose through the ranks. It’s no wonder that even the most widely traveled and sophisticated Party members have always found it difficult to believe that democracy in the West is not an elaborate game of deception.

Doder and Branson describe Milosevic’s machinations to get rid of Stambolic in the late 1980s and then replace him as the Serbian leader. At the same time he transformed himself from a Communist to a nationalist. “Many people warned me about him but I didn’t take them seriously,” Stambolic lamented afterward. “He never had any political ideas of his own.” Stalin set the example for Milosevic, showing that, for an opportunist, intellectual convictions are a hindrance in a system supposedly based on ideology. As for Mira Milosevic, who is a romantic Communist of the old school, her father and her uncle took the side of Stambolic against her husband, whom they did not trust and, in fact, detested.

How did a man with no political convictions, regarded by many Americans who met him and knew him in the 1970s and 1980s as pragmatic, reasonable, and liberal in his economic views, come to embody the worst kind of nationalism? The usual explanation is based on Milosevic’s demagogic opportunism in Kosovo. On April 24, 1987, Stambolic sent Milosevic to Kosovo to calm down the Serbs, who were angry at their mistreatment by the Albanians there and were planning to flee the province on a mass scale. Milosevic brought with him a conciliatory speech, but he never got to deliver it. Thousands of furious Serbs, possibly organized by Milosevic himself, converged on the hall where he was to speak, throwing rocks. The local police, who were mostly Albanian, used clubs to keep the mob under control. Milosevic began by saying, “The Party is going to solve this problem,” when he was interrupted by shouts of “They are beating us!” “No one will ever dare beat you again,” Milosevic blurted out, visibly excited. This sentence was often mistranslated as “No one will defeat you again” in the Western press. “You must stay here,” he continued.

Your land is here. Here are your houses, your fields, your gardens, your memories. You are not hoping to leave them, are you, because life is hard and because you are subjected to injustice and humiliation? It was never in the spirit of the Serb and the Montenegrin peoples to succumb before obstacles, to quit when one has to fight, to be demoralized in the face of hardship.

The crowd loved it. “Slobo! Slobo!” they called out to him. Even the most skeptical and anti-Communist of my Serb friends were impressed. It was as if, for a moment, Milosevic had made peace between the warring factions in the longstanding civil war between Communists and their opponents. The members of the Albanian majority, indeed, were not only mistreating Serbs but also calling openly for secession. Neither side talked about individual rights and civil society, only about their nationalist grievances. For Milosevic this was merely the start. He called mass rallies of his new backers and got the parliament to change the constitution of 1974 so as to abolish the autonomy of the two Serbian provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo, which many Serbs believed Tito had created in order to keep them weak. Even the respected old dissident Milovan Djilas approved the constitutional revision despite the fact that it upset the balance of power among the republics with unforeseen and dangerous consequences.

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