Wars and the man

By William Finnegan
The New Yorker

April 19, 1999

WITH the agony of Kosovo unfolding, scene by gruesome scene, and Slobodan Milosevic gliding suavely through his pirouettes in Belgrade with envoys from Russia and the Vatican, it has become easier than ever to see the whole five-act tragedy of Yugoslavia's breakup as the production of one mad tyrant. It was, after all, in Kosovo that Milosevic found his demagogic voice. Speaking to restive members of the Serb minority there in 1987, he declared, on camera and yet, it seemed, spontaneously, "No one should dare to beat you!" The speech catapulted him from apparatchik obscurity to political prominence as a Serb nationalist. And Kosovo, once he had gained power, became the first focus of his efforts to extend Serb domination over the other citizens of Yugoslavia. The province was stripped of its autonomy in 1989, and ethnic Albanians, though they made up ninety per cent of the population, were stripped of their rights. An extraordinary campaign of administrative dispossession closed schools and colleges and replaced tens of thousands of Albanian workers with Serbs. Kosovo became the scene of the worst human-rights abuses in Europe. While Milosevic, in pursuit of his Greater Serbia, went on to fight bloody wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Kosovo remained the proverbial powder keg of the Balkans.

The passage of Yugoslavia from Tito-style Communism into the post-Communist world has, to be sure, given rise to plenty of other ethnic-nationalist politicians, some of them far more fanatical than Milosevic. Both Franjo Tudjman, the President of Croatia, and Dr. Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, bear the responsibility for extensive ethnic violence (though only Karadzic has been indicted for war crimes). All the wars in the former Yugoslavia have been driven not by ethnic enmity, primarily, but by unscrupulous leaders. Even the Serbs, as the historian Noel Malcolm writes, have had their "hopes of genuine democratic development ... poisoned by the constant reintroduction from above of a politics of fantasy and hatred." And the prime mover and beneficiary of these politics - and of these wars - has been, of course, Milosevic.

Unlike Tudjman and Karadzic, Milosevic is no romantic, and so he has been able to relinquish the dream of a Greater Serbia - and to cut loose hundreds of thousands of war-displaced Serbs - when necessary. He has also kept as much distance as possible between himself and the many killers in his employ. In Richard Holbrooke's memoir of his work as a negotiator in Yugoslavia, there is a scene in which a member of his staff gives Milosevic a report documenting the ties between his forces and the most brutal paramilitaries in Bosnia. Milosevic refuses to touch the document, let alone read it, and leaves the room without acknowledging its existence.

On the whole, though, Milosevic seems to have charmed his Western interlocutors. According to Holbrooke, Warren Christopher, then the Secretary of State, observed of Milosevic that "had fate dealt him a different birthplace and education, he would have been a successful politician in a democratic system." Yes, Milosevic could be a petulant, irascible negotiator, but the 1995 peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, which ended the war in Bosnia, largely rehabilitated him internationally. The war criminal of the early nineteen-nineties was now a statesman. But there are limits to self-reinvention, and Milosevic is the sort of leader - the sort of dictator - who needs a war to keep his people distracted. After barely surviving a series of huge pro-democracy demonstrations in Belgrade and elsewhere in the winter of 1996-97, he turned to the great unfinished business of his tatterdemalion empire: Kosovo. The Kosovo question had not been addressed in the Dayton Agreement, and the long-suffering ethnic Albanians were finally resorting to armed resistance. The Serbs launched reprisals, and the ethnic-cleansing juggernaut was soon under way again. Last month, after international efforts to broker an agreement between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians failed, Milosevic apparently decided to go all out.

This is where most of us came in - when NATO made good on its longstanding threats to start aerial bombing. Since then, Milosevic has been making monkeys of his big-power assailants. He is more popular than ever among Serbs, and the grim work in Kosovo seems to be going spectacularly. High-altitude bombing is useless, of course, against house-to-house ethnic cleansing. After two weeks of NATO assaults, estimates are that, out of nearly two million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, about half have been driven from their homes, and nearly half of those have left Kosovo altogether. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair fume and sternly threaten. Milosevic, playing a far shrewder game, counts his winnings (demographic, political) and offers a ceasefire for Orthodox Easter. Seeing that the ocean of terrorized refugees pouring out of Kosovo is moving Western public opinion toward support for sending ground troops in to stop him, he abruptly closes the borders with Albania and Macedonia. Tens of thousands of desperate people are herded back into Kosovo, out of international sight. An awful silence falls, in which Milosevic begins to act almost as if the war were over. The three captured American soldiers can now be returned. So why is the great bully NATO continuing to bomb a small, peace-loving country, just as the Nazis did?

The truth is, we have no idea how horrendous the suffering inside Kosovo may be - the real damage, the death toll - though indications from refugees' accounts are dire. This moment is reminiscent of the lull that followed the Serb assault, led by Milosevic's comrade General Ratko Mladic, on the Bosnian "safe haven" of Srebrenica in 1995 - of those days before we knew for certain that a terrible massacre had occurred. And the number of lives at risk this time is far, far greater. President Milosevic is not, in fact, the sole author of the tragedy of Yugoslavia. But he is its main villain, and the destruction of Kosovo has been entirely his affair. The world needs to bring down the curtain on his atavistic horror show.

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