During the siege of Sarajevo or the mass deportations from Kosovo, the news of a sudden stoppage of the heart of Slobodan Milosevic would have occasioned a joyous holiday in many other hearts. And the idea that he might one day die in prison would have been excellent tidings for a future generation and was the intended effect of his long and convoluted trial. But the news that he has succumbed randomly is bad news, as was the illness that overtook one of his original judges and helped protract the process in the first place. One can see, forming in the swamps of nationalism and superstition, a myth of martyrdom dimly taking shape.
This would be the worst outcome, since Milosevic began and ended, as all such dictators do, by ruining his own people and degrading his own country. It was on April 24, 1987, that, as an ambitious Stalinoid bureaucrat, he journeyed to Kosovo and made a toxically demagogic appeal to the Serbian minority. It was on June 28, 1989—the 600th anniversary of the Serbian defeat in Kosovo by the Turks—that he returned to the territory and made a hysterical speech to a mass rally. During his ignoble presidency, Serbia became a banana republic, and his predecessor, Ivan Stambolic, was later “disappeared” and found in a shallow grave. Serbian death squads were used against fellow Serbs and also “deniably” deployed in Bosnia and elsewhere. By the end of it, the Serbian minorities in whose name he had launched a regional war had been ignominiously expelled from their ancient homes in the Krajina region and in Kosovo itself. Only a Serb can truly feel the depth of the cultural and political and economic damage that he did, and the brave crowds of students who demonstrated in Belgrade in March 1991 shouting “Slobo Saddam” had it exactly right.
Or almost exactly right. Milosevic did not have quite the psychopathic power of a Saddam Hussein or an Osama Bin Laden. He was that most dangerous of people: the mediocre and conformist official who bides his time and masks his grievances. He went from apparatchik to supreme power, and though he rode a tide of religious and xenophobic fervor, it is quite thinkable that he never really cared about the totems and symbols that he exploited. In office and in the dock, he embodied the banality of evil. In the excellent 1995 book The Death of Yugoslavia, written by Laura Silber and Allan Little, and in the fine BBC TV series that accompanied it, you can actually see the petty tactics and cynical opportunism that he employed like a sluggish maggot at the heart of the state that just keeps eating remorselessly away. He apparently had only one true friend, his adorable ideologue of a wife, Mirjana Markovic, who used to cheer him up about his big-eared and stone-faced appearance and about the suicide of both of his parents. Beware of those resentful nonentities who enter politics for therapeutic reasons.
The highlights of his more lurid criminal career ought to be briefly set down before anyone tries to airbrush them. He arranged for his own entourage to be pelted with stones in Kosovo in 1987 (this we have on film) so that the provocation could appear on Belgrade television and isolate the civilized elements in the ruling party. He made a secret agreement with his equally disgusting counterpart Franjo Tudjman of Croatia for a sort of Stalin-Hitler carve-up of Bosnia, and thus empowered the very Croatian extremists who later turned on Serb civilians. He entered into a collusion with fascist and irredentist groups, among them Bosnian Serbs and Belgrade Serbs, which deliberately threw Bosnia into civil war and gave us the modern (and euphemistic) term “ethnic cleansing.” He hijacked the national army of a unitary state and used it to attack the autonomous republics within that state. He very nearly destroyed two of the urban cultural treasures of Europe: Dubrovnik and Sarajevo. He emptied the treasury of Serbia and reduced its citizens to poverty and paranoia. He and Saddam were the only two heads of government to welcome the failed coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Eventually, he went even further and ordered the mass expulsion of the majority population of Kosovo, who were herded onto trains and forced onto the roads; an act that would, if successful, have lethally destabilized the two neighboring states of Albania and Macedonia. And at that very belated point, the Western powers decided they had had enough of him and brought about his removal from Kosovo and his removal from power.
It is worth remembering, however, how much the “realists” had relied upon him until then. Negotiators David Owen, representing the European Union, and former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance thought he was a necessary “partner for peace.” Henry Kissinger and Lawrence Eagleburger pronounced him to be the man to do business with and steadily opposed any intervention. It took an act of ultimate irrationality on Milosevic’s part before NATO decided to overrule Russian and Chinese and U.N. objections and put an end to fascism and racist murder in their own backyard. And, of course, by then most of the damage had been done, and it is now the anti-realists who inherit the ghastly, laborious job of cleaning up the mess, digging up the mass graves, restoring essential services, and pacifying inflamed tribal and confessional feelings.
Some friends and colleagues of mine have testified against Milosevic and his henchmen in The Hague and had the satisfaction of seeing the slaughterers and torturers confronted by their victims. An enormous archive of atrocity has been amassed and videotaped and cataloged, and one day history will be very grateful for it. No denial or revisionism will be possible in this case. It would be nice to think that it was this relentless accumulation of evidence that stopped Milosevic, who was often confronted by former colleagues in the witness box, from making the long and self-pitying speeches that have served Saddam Hussein as a model tactic. It would also be nice to think that it is what eventually killed him. But he probably suffered his last spasm feeling sorry only for himself, and now we will have the final sordid task of preventing others from feeling a misplaced sympathy for him also.