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.

Already by the mid-1980s, the idea of a Greater Yugoslavia had been weakened, while separatist national sentiments everywhere began to replace the old Titoist rallying cry of “brotherhood and unity.” Open nationalist agitation started in Croatia in 1970 with the demand by some intellectuals “to make available to the Croatian student…the basic works of value of Croatian literary culture and of Croatian culture in general.”1 Tito crushed that nationalist protest and its leaders, but their ideas were not defeated. The disintegration of the country began with outspoken claims by writers and intellectuals about cultural distinctiveness. Politicians only came on board later. It was not clear that the call for cultural independence was going to undermine Yugoslav identity, but that’s how it worked out in practice. What matters, many writers and intellectuals were then saying, is not what binds us together but what separates us. In the Balkans, where everyone remembers only the harm done to them and not the harm they’ve done to others, there was now a competition over who was the greatest victim.

The infamous “memorandum” of the Serbian Academy in 1986 is a good example. Signed by dozens of scholars and writers, the document asserts that Tito’s Yugoslavia discriminated against the Serbs by subordinating their economy to Croatia’s and Slovenia’s and permitting Albanians to carry out “genocide” in Kosovo. The cultural wars that preceded the dissolution of Yugoslavia provided the Communist leaders in the different republics with new rallying slogans. Those who are surprised that the party which once called on the workers of the world to unite had turned chauvinist overnight forget the Manichaean side of communism. The creation of enemies, domestic and foreign, has been a chief industry of all Communist societies.

Unfortunately for everyone, the “new class” of officials, protected by secret police and with complete control of the mass media, was already firmly installed in Yugoslavia, and they were bent on staying in power whether as Communists or as nationalists. No historian of the period gives the interests of the ruling elite great importance, but to me the need of its members to preserve their privileges was of crucial importance. After the fall of Tito and the collapse of Communist ideology in the late 1980s, many Yugoslavs somehow expected that the Communist officials who ran the country would give up their directorships, villas, limousines, shopping sprees in Paris and New York, and accounts in foreign banks and would permit an open competition of ideas in which they were liable to be pushed out. That was not a realistic possibility, especially when there was another option. Most party leaders would willingly have become Moonies denouncing nationalism if that ensured their remaining in power.

The war of words turned into real war in May 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. Slovene elections the previous year had been won by a center-right coalition, while in Croatia the Communists were replaced by a new nationalist party led by Franjo Tudjman, an ex-general of the Yugoslav army. In Serbia and Montenegro, the Communists survived the first free elections. Milosevic had already made a secret deal with Slovene leadership that they could quit the federation. As for the rest of Yugoslavia, he envisioned uniting all Serbs in one state by taking over the considerable parts of Croatia in which Serbs were a majority and dividing Bosnia and Herzegovina with Tudjman.

“We don’t want to live with them anymore,” friends told me without stopping for a moment to think how there could be a just separation of different peoples in a country where populations are so mixed—not just living near one another but in many cases intermarried. The Croatian constitution had just demoted the 600,000 Serbs living there to minority status by making the country “the national state of the Croatian people.” Western journalists and intellectuals wrote approvingly of the newly independent republics, seeing them as cases of self-determination; they could not understand why those who still stubbornly insisted on calling themselves Yugoslavs were upset. The Western commentators never asked themselves what it might mean to wake up one day no longer American citizens but members of a minority in, say, a WASP state, told they must apply for a residence permit or get lost. Anyone who believed there was still such a place as Yugoslavia was considered a historical loser. Amid the claims for minority rights, the rights of a great many people who did not wish to separate were annulled overnight. The recipe for disaster, enthusiastically supported abroad, was self-determination for everybody except for the Serbs, two million of whom had the bad luck of living outside Serbia, mainly in Croatia and Bosnia.

What continues to amaze me about the early days of the war in Croatia, and later in Bosnia, is the viciousness of Milosevic and the criminal irresponsibility of Serbs who followed him. Not much of the violence was spontaneous. The paramilitary units who did much of the killing were armed and run by Serbian secret services under the direction of their leaders. (So were the Croatian paramilitaries armed by Tudjman’s secret police.) Doder and Branson describe a policy that has been documented in many previous accounts, some in these pages. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and Arkan were following a pattern that Milosevic himself approved of. First, create a condition of chaos in which no one who is not a Serb could rely on protection. Set neighbor against neighbor, and let your armed groups steal and rape all they want while implicating the innocent in your crimes. Until the war got underway in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic had been just a demagogue among a number of other nationalist demagogues, but his readiness to spill innocent blood on such a grand scale set him apart.

Yugoslavia, with all its economic problems, was not the worst place in the world to live. The borders were open. People traveled abroad, millions of foreign tourists came every summer. The large cities were cosmopolitan, the young people were interested in the same things as their counterparts in London and Berlin. It was difficult to believe that there were no defenses against such an obviously evil strategy as Milosevic’s, but whatever inner restraint the different Yugoslav groups may have felt was largely disrupted by the atmosphere of fear and hatred he and his followers created.

In her book The Culture of Lies, the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugresic says:

The Yugoslav war is a dispiriting tale about human solidarity. Very few people sympathized with the Slovenes, when the war began, just as the Slovenes themselves unanimously closed the doors of their new state immediately after the war. The Croats showed no solidarity to anyone, just as few showed any to the Croats. The Serbs had no sympathy for anyone at all, and no one showed any understanding for the Serbs. Few people had ever shown solidarity with the Albanians, just as Albanians were deaf to other people’s troubles.2

The government-controlled press and television in Serbia and elsewhere must bear heavy guilt for spreading nationalist madness and inciting hatred. A Belgrade journalist once told me, “Let me have the three major American networks and three leading newspapers for a year and I’ll bring back public lynchings and racial war in the US.” The effect of a daily diet of lies was numbing even to educated people. Serbs, they were told, are the oldest people on earth, older than the pyramids—even the apes are descended from us, one of my relatives commented. The Serbs were seen in the mass media as the eternal victims of their ungrateful neighbors, for whose liberty they gave their lives in wars, only to be stabbed in the back in peacetime. The New World Order, the Vatican, and Islam were all portrayed as out to destroy this small, freedom-loving people who never did any harm to anyone, only because they stand up for what is right.

How many believed this paranoid mixture of swagger and self-pity? Nationalism tends to make many people close their eyes to reality, and this was certainly the case here. Even dimwitted Serbs should have realized that an arrogant policy of genocide, destruction of cities, and ethnic cleansing would have disastrous results for the country.

Tudjman made sure he had powerful allies—in the US, in Germany—before he set out to expel Serbs and Muslims. Milosevic had none. He thought he could impose his will on the other Yugoslav republics and regions and their political leaders and get away with murder. Many Serbs, seeing themselves as the heroic people who always fought on the side of the oppressed, simply could not accept that atrocities were being committed in their name. Others saw the disaster coming. Doder and Branson remind us of the countless attempts to overthrow Milosevic, beginning in March 1991, when he had to send tanks into the streets of Belgrade. To protest the siege of Sarajevo, university students wrapped a black ribbon of mourning more than a mile long around the parliament. At one time or another as many as a quarter of the Serbian troops deserted. The authors quote the account of a Serb general who wanted to shame conscripts into fighting in Croatia:

All those who are not prepared to “defend the glory of the Serbian nation” had better lay down their arms and take off their uniforms, the general told them.

“And, incredibly, they all did, including their commanding officer…. They were standing there and I got furious and shouted at them to remove everything including their underpants, and with the exception of one man they all removed their military issue underpants and marched off completely naked. I was still hoping that they would change their mind, but they didn’t.”

The one surprise in Portrait of a Tyrant is how Serbian politicians and military men approached the United States for help in getting rid of Milosevic and were rejected. After the Dayton Accord, “the butcher of the Balkans,” regarded as the chief culprit for everything that had happened in Yugoslavia, was suddenly transformed into a peacemaker. Notwithstanding the ritual denunciation of Milosevic by the State Department, he was now seen by the US and the Europeans as the linchpin of stability in the region. The demonstrators in Belgrade were told, in effect, that the United States had a magic formula for turning butchers into lambs.

Did US policymakers conclude that Serbia, like so many other countries in which they had supported dictatorship, needs a strongman? Practically every move the United States made, and has continued to make, has strengthened Milosevic. The economic sanctions introduced in 1992, when he was politically weak, were an enormous help in solidifying his power by destroying independent businesses and impoverishing heretofore relatively prosperous farmers. They gave his ruling party control over nearly all the economic activity in the country. The sanctions thus both helped the members of the official oligarchy enrich themselves beyond their dreams and provided them with a ready excuse for the misery the people were living in. Sanctions are based on the theory that eventually either the tyrant will be distressed by the thought of a hungry child or the people whose children are hungry will throw him out of power. As in some classic Communist pamphlet, the unarmed Serbian masses, desperately impoverished by sanctions, are somehow supposed to rise up against Milosevic’s secret services and the army, force free elections, and deliver him and his cronies to the court in The Hague. Could any strategy have been more unreal?

Milosevic has narrowly won every election since 1991 by dividing and corrupting his opponents. Kosovo Albanians refused to participate in the voting, despite the urgings of Western diplomats, knowing that keeping him in power could only strengthen the case for separation. Serbia itself has dozens of political parties, a number of which are undoubtedly the creations of Milosevic’s secret services. He runs the country with a coalition of his own socialist party, a party of neo-fascists lead by Vojislav Seselj, and a party of “leftists” run by his wife. As Doder and Branson rightly say, for Milosevic it is a matter of complete indifference for whom the Serbs vote. What is all-important is who counts the votes, and Milosevic will make sure they don’t go against him.

Doder and Branson also wrestle with the difficult question of why so many Serbs have followed Milosevic into what amounts to national suicide. Again, they mention the obsession of Serbs with the past, “a peculiar Serb psyche of nationalism that some liken to a malady and others ascribe to a rustic fatalism based on xenophobia, superstition and a long history of humiliation.” But even a casual reading of the Croatian or Albanian press would quickly demonstrate that there is nothing especially original about Serbian nationalist ravings and that they are no more nasty than the ravings of Croatians or Kosovars.

One of the problems of Doder and Branson’s book is that it lacks a larger perspective. They do not consider how the territorial ambitions and intolerance of other groups have contributed to the mess. The break-up of Yugoslavia put the Serbs in a tough predicament. They had legitimate historical claims which the Western nations never took the trouble to distinguish from the man who was leading them and manipulating them. Most obviously, the large Serbian population in Croatia, resident there for hundreds of years, was suddenly trapped.

The Rambouillet peace talks on Kosovo, which were meant to weaken Milosevic, again inadvertently strengthened him. The Serbian delegation unexpectedly agreed to the broad outlines of an autonomy deal but turned down the demand that NATO troops would enforce it. The Albanians initially refused to sign because the document did not clearly specify a referendum on independence, although they later gave up this condition and signed. The US introduced, at the last minute, an additional demand that NATO personnel be allowed to “enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft, and equipment, free and unrestricted access throughout FRY [the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] including associated airspace and territorial waters.” This was, in effect, an ultimatum legitimizinga foreign military occupation of Serbia. It reminded Serbs of other ultimatums in their history and this guaranteed its rejection.

They were told that if they did not sign they would get bombed; but Milosevic, characteristically, took advantage of the bombing. He introduced wartime censorship, shut down what was left of the opposition press, radio, and television, and branded his critics in the democratic opposition as traitors in the pay of NATO. Doder and Branson write that he was infected by the Kosovo myth—they believe he saw himself as fighting an epic struggle with the fatalism of the Serb hero Tsar Lazar, who went down in defeat before the Turks in 1389. I don’t buy it. Milosevic couldn’t care less about Kosovo or the chivalric code of medieval Serbia. In his usual brutal fashion, he revenged himself on the Albanians who rejected his authority, forcing them to flee and creating a humanitarian catastrophe; but as in Bosnia and Croatia he had no long-term strategy. The Serbian minority and the hundreds of medieval monasteries and churches there mean as little to him as they do to an Albanian nationalist with a blowtorch.

As for the much-praised “humanitarian intervention,” no matter what Ms. Albright says, the NATO bombing was a form of collective punishment in which innocent Serbs were made to pay the full price for the sins of their leaders who, of course, remained well protected in their shelters. In Serbia, refineries, fertilizer and petrochemical plants, factories, bridges, waterways, railroad lines, power stations, and heating plants were destroyed to make life harder on the civilians. “NATO IN THE SKY, MILOSEVIC ON THE GROUND,” a graffito in Belgrade said. With bombs dropping on their heads, it was ridiculous to expect the Serbs to distinguish morally between the two.

If Milosevic is serene today, it is because his police and army are pretty much intact. While previously he fought to remain in power, now, as the first sitting head of state to be accused of war crimes, he is more dangerous than ever. The recent unsolved murders and disappearances of political opponents and journalists are bound to multiply.

If Milosevic’s opponents became more aggressive and were then subject to a widespread slaughter, this would, as they themselves know, shock the world for three days, and that would be it. Since the United States insists that sanctions will not be lifted until he is replaced in free elections—that is, until Milosevic voluntarily agrees to his own demise and imprisonment—he will most likely be around for a while. Believing in nothing and with no conscience whatever, he is today what he always was, the worst enemy of the Serbs and Montenegrins, and certainly of everyone else in reach.

This Issue

January 20, 2000