Slobodan Milosevic

How a genocidal dictator keeps getting away with it.

Back when there was more than one superpower, the United States and the Soviet Union treated little dictators as playthings, dolls to dress up and knock down. But these days the besieged tyrant of an ailing country can make the United States look mousy. This month, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ignored the United States when it commanded him to halt the Serbian assault on Albanians in Kosovo. Throwing a bone to the outraged Americans, Milosevic repeated his meaningless promise to consider negotiating with moderate Albanians. Meanwhile, he courted Russia’s support for his escapades, raising the specter of a Cold War-style standoff.

Time and again, Milosevic has played the United States for a patsy. His pattern: He behaves in his most Hitlerian way, then promises to improve and weasels away unscathed. By some American accounts, he even emerges as a hero. He is applauded for helping to cobble together the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian War. In his memoir To End a War, U.N. ambassador nominee Richard Holbrooke calls Milosevic intelligent and downright affable. Newspaper profiles add the requisite charming details: Sure, he murdered thousands of innocent Croats and Muslims, but he loves cigarillos and insists that journalists join him for fancy meals and drinking bouts.

The Butcher of the Balkans’ genius is his chilly pragmatism. He has a sensitive political ear: If he needs to compromise, he compromises. At the end of 1996, for example, thousands of students took to the street calling for his resignation. Instead of rolling out the tanks, Milosevic caved in to all their demands–short of handing them his own head. Soon after his concessions, the movement splintered. Later, he retracted most of his concessions. Machiavelli or Trotsky could not have scripted it better. (For a quick backgrounder on Milosevic’s cynical orchestration of the Bosnian War, click here.)

Milosevic applies this same savvy to his diplomatic dealings. Unbelievably, he has convinced officials in Foggy Bottom that he’s indispensable to Balkan peace and stability. The reason: The alternatives to Milosevic are considered even more monstrous. This is a perception that he created himself. Quietly, he bolsters his most radical opponents, giving them air time to grandstand on state-run television. He carefully calculated the rise of Vojislav Seselj, who calls for the ethnic cleansing of Serbia and has written tomes paying homage to militarism and fascism. Despite Milosevic’s genocidal record, he does appear to be tame in comparison–the housebroken Hitler.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

How did Milosevic come by this cold pragmatism? He is a product of the hellish post-Stalinist bureaucracy, a place where betrayal was a much better career strategy than principle. His rise to power is a tale of back-stabbing and machinations. An ambitious law student, Milosevic hitched his star to the rapidly advancing career of his older schoolmate Ivan Stambolic. Milosevic served as Stambolic’s right-hand man as the latter rose to top positions in the state energy corporation, the state bank, and the Communist Party. Milosevic seemed destined to die a hatchet man.

Then, in 1987, he got lucky. Stambolic sent Milosevic as his proxy to a party meeting in Kosovo, where Serbs were grouching about their oppression by the Albanian majority. It was a standard apparatchik affair, ending with a predictable affirmation of the old Titoist line that the party must crush nascent Serb nationalism. But departing from the meeting, Milosevic encountered a crowd of Serbs who were being restrained by police and filmed by live television cameras. As the camera turned to Milosevic, he hesitated, bumbled, and then yelled, “Nobody has the right to beat these people!” His remarks electrified the crowd, which spontaneously broke into the Serbian national anthem. The incident made Milosevic an overnight symbol of rising nationalist sentiment, and he milked his accidental celebrity to the fullest. Months after his pronouncement, he ousted and replaced Stambolic as head of Serbia’s Communist Party, accusing him of not being supportive enough of downtrodden Serbs.

Milosevic has carried the post-Stalinist mindset into the post-Communist era. He refuses to allow the liberalization of the Serb economy, letting corrupt cronies run state monopolies and pillage the state coffers. Nearly every year he reorganizes his Cabinet, deposing old friends and allowing no one to accumulate significant power.

Milosevic doesn’t care about the trappings of power. He doesn’t put his name on airports or collect seaside villas or bed women. Although he has a gift for oratory, he is a recluse who hates crowds. Quite simply, he has an apparatchik’s attitude: He will hang onto power at all costs. He has a paranoid fear (well, not paranoid, because it’s true) that if he doesn’t ruthlessly boost himself, a colleague will do him in.

There’s something darker at work as well. Milosevic was born in a small Montenegrin village, to two schoolteachers. Both his parents committed suicide. Those who regularly deal with Milosevic say he suffers from more than a touch of depression himself. When protesters march against him, he grows despondent and doesn’t leave his office for days. It is said that he hasn’t a lick of genuine humor and rarely displays empathy. Unlike Hitler, whose inner circle adored him, Milosevic humiliates his staff and keeps no confidants.

In the pursuit of power, Milosevic has run Serbia into the ground. The war he instigated provoked U.N. sanctions that wrecked the Serbian economy. Although many of the sanctions have been lifted, inflation remains sky high. Unemployment hovers near 50 percent. And the country’s manufacturing output has been reduced by half during his tenure. His popularity is said to be at an all-time low.

To prevent any of his discontented subjects from revolting, Milosevic has reverted to the nastiest of his old apparatchik instincts. In the last year, he has temporarily closed dozens of independent newspapers and television stations because they griped too loudly about him. He has also expanded the secret police, which now totals an estimated 80,000 officers. One third of this force is said to be specially trained to quash riots. Another third is said to be devoted to preventing army coups.

The current tumult in Kosovo completes a circle for Milosevic. He launched his career there and it seems fitting that he return. His Serb army and police seem to be doing their best to provoke war. This week, Serb soldiers murdered 10 people trying to cross the Albanian border. If war does erupt, it may not be contained as it was in Bosnia. Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, and even Russia could be drawn into the conflict. How much of the world would Milosevic sacrifice for the sake of his power? As much as it takes.

If you missed the sidebar on Milosevic’s role in the Bosnian war, click here.