How To Handle Milosevic

Would that I were right now writing the political obituary of Slobodan Milosevic. I know exactly what it ought to say: Here ends the reign of a man who, even by his own, Serbian-nationalist standards, was a political failure. Promising to consolidate the “Serb Lands” of former Yugoslavia, he instead oversaw the breakup of Yugoslavia into its constituent parts, behaving so arrogantly that even loyal Montenegro now wants out of the Serb federation. Swearing to protect his Serb brethren, wherever they might be, he instead brought tragedy and ruin to most of the Serbs outside Serbia. He alienated his country—under communism one of the best-integrated in the Soviet bloc—from the rest of the world. He thoroughly impoverished what had been, by Eastern European standards, a relatively wealthy and advanced society, criminalizing its economy, destroying its currency. That, of course, leaves out all of the death and destruction Milosevic wrought in Croatia and Bosnia, not to mention Kosovo, not to mention the disruption he caused further afield.

But by one standard, Milosevic can indeed be judged a success: He has consistently proved to be an absolute genius at preserving his own power. In fact, he is a Communist leader of the Jaruzelski/Honecker/Husák generation and should have fallen along with them, way back in 1989. Unlike them, however, he saw which way the wind was blowing, successfully concealed his Communist identity behind a new nationalist façade, and kept on ruling. Changing his colors to fit the occasion, he became, at one point, the West’s most important negotiating partner in the Balkans (how quickly we forget), before becoming the West’s sworn enemy. He has maintained control, despite internal and external opposition, with amazing tenacity. Until late last week, he was still issuing orders in Belgrade. As of the writing of this article, his political party’s Web site  was still calling its opponents “LIARS” in bold capital letters, despite having already conceded electoral victory to them.

For that reason, I would feel far more optimistic about the future of Serbia if Milosevic had decided to board that Yugoslav Airlines flight for Moscow last week with his son Marko and his grandson, also called Marko, the very one whom Milosevic said on Friday he was “hoping to spend more time with,” now that he was so genteelly retiring from office. And I don’t think I am alone: Richard Holbrooke, who has probably dealt with Milosevic more than any other American official, told the New York Times that the ex-president’s stated decision to stay in Belgrade and to stay involved in Serbian politics was “vastly complicating.”

This, alas, may turn out to be an understatement. As we now know from watching the transitions unfold in a dozen other countries across Europe, ex-Communists in general are remarkably adept at holding on to influence even after they have been evicted from office: Everyone always forgets that they and their cronies had controlled not only the parliaments and executive branches of their respective countries, but the industry, the financial sectors, the media, the army, and the police as well. Within a few months of losing office, they invariably manage to regroup, with far more money and wider economic influence than the generally weak and divided democrats who replace them. Note, for the record, that the Poles re-elected Alexander Kwasniewski, a former Communist, as their president, despite evidence of lying, drunkenness, and even tapes showing the man mocking the pope.

Milosevic is certainly poised to follow in Kwasniewski’s footsteps, with (given his greater venality and criminality) far more damaging consequences for his country. There is already talk of the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars of gold he has allegedly smuggled abroad (perfect for financing later election campaigns, or even coups). Large chunks of the army leadership are probably still loyal to him; some appeared set to take over state TV Friday. He appears to be openly in control of at least one other TV station, however, via his influential wife, and who knows how much of the rest of the media, via more clandestine links. The democrats who have ousted him are, even by Balkan standards, extremely divided and quarrelsome. Newly inaugurated President Vojislav Kostunica’s ruling coalition contains 18 parties, all with completely different programmes and goals. When the inevitable dissatisfaction with change sets in—and it always does, I’m afraid, particularly if there are lots of people around to encourage it—Milosevic will be well poised for a comeback.

Tragically, Kostunica doesn’t seem to recognize the danger, or if he does, he doesn’t feel able to deal with it yet. He has already begun to speak vaguely of a “government of national unity” or, using that other suspect euphemism, a “government of experts.” If he thinks he can placate Milosevic and his allies by forming coalitions with them, however, he is making an enormous mistake, one made in various ways by victorious democrats across the old eastern bloc over the past decade.

No, the time for Kostunica to deal with Milosevic—and his friends, and his criminal associates, and his security service thugs—is right now, while the public is still supporting him, while the evidence is still fresh. He needn’t hang him or shoot him, or even hand him over to the Hague: far better to put him on trial in Yugoslavia itself. Now is the time to make the arrests, to get out all the evidence, to make sure the Serbs understand precisely who is responsible for their poverty and isolation, precisely who caused the wars they’ve fought for the past decade. Now is the time to make sure history is written by the victors—before it gets written by someone else.