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Reflections on Milosevic

April 14, 2006

By David Binder

No Serbian leader had such renown since the time of Prince Lazar and Tsar Dusan. No Yugoslav except Tito had such international recognition. One must concede that to Slobodan Milosevic and, at the end of his days he appeared to relish that prominence immensely – the sole reminder of his years in power over the shredded country he left behind.

But keep in mind, his notoriety was manufactured largely outside of Serbia, outside of the larger Yugoslav frame, by adversaries who became enemies slavering over his final defeats and rejoicing in his incarceration.

“Butcher of the Balkans!” (who was it that coined that ludicrous epithet reminiscent of World War I or World War II propaganda?) “He was a monster!” trumpeted Richard Holbrooke adding, “Sometimes monsters make the biggest impact on history. Hitler, Stalin. And such is the case with this gentleman.”

Note the sly addition of “this gentleman” – because Holbrooke, the failed diplomat, had not merely shaken the putatively bloody hand of the monster, he had also smoked fine cigars and drunk excellent whisky with him, again and again.Wesley Clark, the failed general – the U.S. Army retired him after his troubled stint as NATO commander – faintly echoed Holbrooke calling Milosevic a “petty Hitler.”

Why such preposterous exaggeration? Because it provided a venomous rationale justifying the United States and its allies to subject Milosevic’s Serbia first to severe sanctions and then to bombs, rockets and uranium-laced munitions. Of parallel importance, it elevated Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, the Holbrookes and the Clarks to the status of giant-killers.

No wonder that the Hague Tribunal’s chief prosecutor bemoaned the death of Milosevic. Without such a star-quality defendant in her dock, Carla del Ponte would have a hard time generating attention and publicity for what for many if not most has become a tiresome expenditure of resources and time. Amid the Milosevic post-mortem frenzy and with the logic of a Hollywood producer, she told anyone who would listen that it was now more important than ever to bring the fugitive General Ratko Mladic and his political collaborator Radovan Karadzic to trial.

The first time I reported about Milosevic was in autumn 1987 when he politicked his way to the top of the Serbian Communist party and began to manipulate the media through his adjutants. A Belgrade colleague told me how Milosevic had brutally threatened Azem Vlasi, the Kosovo leader, using vulgarities about the Albanian’s mother. Vlasi replied: “I do not say that about your mother, but I do not forget what you said about my mother.” As soon as he could Milosevic had Vlasi, the one Albanian who might have preserved Kosovo for Yugoslavia, thrown in jail.

In 1988 I sought an interview with Milosevic. I got only as far as Mihailo Crnobrnja, at the time his adviser on economic policy, who said he had a strong impression Milosevic was striving to assume the mantle of Tito. “That is his ambition,” Crnobrnja emphasized.

In following years I asked six times for an interview with Milosevic. He never replied. The only time I encountered him was in January 1993 when I followed Cyrus Vance, the international mediator, to the Federal Executive Building in New Belgrade. Milosevic shook hands with us journalists, but he declined to answer questions.

Another snapshot from 1993: I was strolling on a Washington street with P.J. Nichols, a State Department Yugoslavia specialist and one of the principal architects of the punishing economic sanctions instituted against Serbia. We talked about the Yugoslav wars.

All at once, his eyes glistening with missionary zeal, Nichols put a hand on my elbow and declared: “I have a vision! A vision of a worker from Rakovica, who grabs a pistol and goes up and shoots Milosevic!” I shook my head: “You’ve got that wrong, P.J. The workers in Rakovica are some of Milosevic’s strongest supporters!”

Now in looking back on the astounding career of a provincial politician who now ranks as one of the 20th century’s leading villains, I remind myself of what he was and what he wasn’t.

Milosevic did conduct himself as a petty despot.

His actions turned Serbia into a kind of prison.

By action here and inaction there he fostered massive corruption at the state level and below, some of which is still flourishing.

He also left Serbia behind in a condition of economic and political weakness unmatched since the Ottoman conquest and occupation.

But he did not himself start four Balkan wars.

He did not strive for a “Greater Serbia.”

He did not play a part in the massacres around Srebrenica.

He did not mastermind the expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo.

Nor could the Hague prosecution, with all the time and all the resources at its disposal, have proven any of those charges.

So what will the judgment of history be on Slobodan Milosevic?

It took Sidney B. Fay, an American historian, a decade after the end of World War I to demonstrate exhaustively and definitively that Germany did not by itself precipitate World War I, with his The Origins of The World War. But that was much too late to prevent crippling reparations and other punitive actions by the victorious entente powers, or their deadly impact on postwar German politics.

But I suspect it will take historians much, much longer to redress the current one-sided version of the true causes of the wars of Yugoslavia and the real nature of Slobodan Milosevic’s part in them.


David Binder (born 1931) was a correspondent for The New York Times from 1961 until 2004. He specialized in coverage of central and eastern Europe, based in Berlin, Belgrade and Bonn. The current piece was published in Belgrade’s Politika on March 22, 2006.

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