Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The Rise and Fall of Milosevic
No one can absolve Slobodan Milosevic of responsibility for the Yugoslav conflict.
A war was always on the cards, but by no means certain. Milosevic ensured that it was.
Milosevic did not create Serbian nationalism, but opened the door for it.
He placed himself at the head of an aggressive movement that was destroying the institutions of Tito's Yugoslavia in the late
1980s and early 1990s. Probably, he himself was unaware where it could all lead.
His rise to power by means of a kind of a party coup
in autumn 1987 coincided with Gorbachev loudly proclaiming the end of world communism.
This was bad news for the country Tito left behind, especially the conservative army which justifiably feared that it would not survive in the new political climate.
Yugoslavia already had an in-built mechanism of disintegration. The republics had a constitutional right to secede, but Serbian nationalism was opposed to a break-up.
Belgrade nationalists feared it would encourage Albanian separatism and were opposed to Serbs living in Croatia and Bosnia being separated from Serbia.
Milosevic sought to placate orthodox communists and nationalists. He promised continuity to the former while the latter saw him as a brave and bellicose leader who would eventually deliver something resembling a Greater Serbia.
But he was actually promising the impossible to both. Yet they desperately wanted to believe him. All the subsequent tragedies that befell Yugoslavia stem from the attempt to make the impossible possible.
Some saw him as a genuine communist masked as a nationalist for tactical reasons, others thought that the situation was the other way round.
From the outset, his ideological platform married left and right - that left a political vacuum in the centre which was filled by the opposition.
So Milosevic refused to recognise the fall of the Berlin Wall and continued to wage a kind of private Cold War against the West.
At the same time, he engaged in political conflicts and finally wars with other peoples of former Yugoslavia - driven by his determination that all Serbs should live in the same state.
He never diverted from his course. He was always utterly consistent. From the moment he assumed power, it was possible to predict that Yugoslavia would eventually be engulfed by an horrific war.
He was a man of conflict. He felt best in crises, while giving
the impression that he was not overly interested in their outcome.
He did not derive his legitimacy from victories. He simply wanted conflict and war to last as long as possible, as it seems he
felt safer in an atmosphere of fear.
Naturally, he always claimed that he was only defending himself
against enemies plotting to undermine the Serbs - the war with NATO in his mind providing the most compelling evidence of an international conspiracy.
Although no one in Serbia supported NATO bombs, Milosevic's evident expectation that the war would reinforce his position proved to be groundless.
It was too late for that. He had already been profoundly discredited. The bombs perhaps only prolonged Serbia's agony. Last year's elections demonstrated that practically the entire country had turned its back on
Many were surprised that the man considered the last dictator in Europe lost power in a ballot and stepped down without putting up much of a fight.
The reason for this is that while Milosevic ruled in a dictatorial manner, the political system in Serbia retained a democratic façade.
Parties, elections and independent media existed for over a decade. Milosevic did not rule the country with brutal force, disregarding all laws.
At the outset, he enjoyed broad-based support. And in later years he forged various formal and informal coalitions with the opposition, with the aim of compromising his rivals.
When it became quite clear that he was stripped of his legitimacy, no force could come to his rescue. Both the army and the police had abandoned him.
Is this man a war criminal? Determined investigators will certainly be able to find the evidence of at least "command responsibility" for some crime.
Milosevic will soon be in the dock, but those hoping he'll reveal hitherto unknown details about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, wars and secret talks are going to be disappointed.
That's because Milosevic has consistently avoided telling the truth.
Lying was synonymous with his style of leadership. His lies were mostly flimsy, at times brutally obvious.
But it's clear he kick-started a chain of events that reeked violence and death.
He may not have wanted any of that, but it seems that he was perfectly indifferent towards the evil he spawned.
Stojan Cerovic is a columnist for the Belgrade weekly Vreme.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight