Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq

Tom Gallagher
13 March 2006

Slobodan Milosevic, the former president of Serbia and Yugoslavia found dead in his cell in The Hague on 11 March 2006, was an unscrupulous opportunist whose brazen defiance of western democratic states and the United Nations in the 1990s ended in only a narrow defeat. He showed how precarious and shallow was the peace following the long cold war, even in the heart of Europe. He recognised the weakness of the democratic world, its complacency and even moral abdication in the face of the flagrant manipulation of nationalism, and its unwillingness to take risks to defend the Bosnian state and its largest group, the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) from massacre and ethnic cleansing.

The Bosniaks' abandonment in turn envenomed Islamist radicals, who were driven (as their testimonies, and studies like that of Evan Kohlmann, confirm) to take revenge by their attacks in the United States on 9/11.

Tom Gallagher holds the chair of East European Studies in the department of peace studies, Bradford University, England. His two most recent books are The Balkans in the New Millennium (Routledge, 2005) and The Balkans After the Cold War: From Tyranny to Tragedy (Routledge, paperback edition, 2005)

But the politicians who chose at last to defy rather than succour Milosevic at the end of the 1990s, not least Tony Blair, derived the wrong lessons from their ultimate success. If their predecessors (principally Britain's Conservative government under John Major and Douglas Hurd, and the French socialists under Francois Mitterrand and Roland Dumas) had indulged the Belgrade tyrant and overestimated the difficulties in any confrontation with him, Blair vastly underestimated the scale of the challenge that followed Milosevic's subjugation: "regime change" in Baghdad. The resulting mess has divided and demoralised the west, and emboldened a series of Milosevic-clones the world over.

The evasion of history

As the west celebrated the end of the cold war, Yugoslavia was the uninvited guest which trashed its parties. As Milosevic's assaults on Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 were extended to Bosnia in 1992, a bleeding country scorned the facile triumphalism of those like Francis Fukuyama who had dared to insist that the western idea and its embodiment in liberal-democratic institutions was providing universal norms for nation-states. When the killing spree finally flashed across his radar screen, his response (in The End of History and the Last Man, 1992) was to emphasise "the need to insulate Yugoslavia from larger questions of American security".

What was soon to become Europe's bloodiest conflict since 1945 erupted just as European Union leaders were putting the finishing touches to ambitious plans for monetary and financial union, for elements of a common foreign and security policy. With Russia preoccupied with its own internal troubles, European and United States leaders had for the first time in generations a free hand in responding to a major crisis in the Balkans.

Almost none of them saw what was at stake. John Major's memoirs recall: "The conflict in Bosnia … took us almost unawares … Its roots were bewildering". As Milosevic's war policy was unleashed, mainly against civilians (as in Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo and countless other places), Major's government exerted no restraint; a policy that undermined belief in the EU's own ambitious programme of creating a set of common institutions around which a single European entity would gradually take shape.

Yet if it had wished to forestall the conflict in Yugoslavia (one that looked increasingly imminent at the start of the 1990s), the west possessed both credibility and strong instruments. A logical starting-point would have been strong and unambiguous backing for the numerous forces committed to preserving common ground and dealing with disputes in a non-violent and pragmatic way.

This could have been followed by unambiguous warnings from European Union countries to Milosevic's Belgrade (and Franjo Tudjman's Zagreb): we have painstakingly striven for nearly forty years to prevent divisive nationalism wrecking our own neighbourhood, and we are not going to stand by and allow a descent into nationalist hatred in Yugoslavia – which could only jeopardise our own as well as your people's well-being.

Nothing of this sort happened. After 1945, the west's triumphant but exhausted democracies had quickly devised a security system to block further Soviet expansion westwards; but after 1989 there was no comparable urgency about upgrading the security architecture of the cold war in order to confront challenges of internal conflict where civilian populations were being placed at grave risk.

Stanley Hoffmann, an acute observer of policy shifts on both sides of the Atlantic, believed that a clue to Milosevic's confidently aggressive tactics could be found in his communist formation: "as a good Leninist, Milosevic kept pushing because he met only mush but might have moderated his demands and his acts if he had met steel far short of colossal military action by European or UN powers…"

In fact, Milosevic was a value-free politician, the product of a communist bureaucracy during a period of decline who was less concerned about ideology – whether it was the nationalist or Marxist-Leninist variety, or an amalgam of both – than with perpetuating his own hold on power. Through time spent in the west during the 1980s, he knew the limited knowledge and, even more, the limited attention-span western leaders possessed for his region.

He was able to play to their prejudices and fears. Pusillanimous western diplomats who rarely strayed outside Belgrade helped popularise the view in their chancelleries back home that the man from Pozarevac was a rougher, tougher version of Marshal Tito. He had (the argument went) the same ultimate aim of keeping Yugoslavia together, but with the Serbs enjoying more latitude – a normal impulse, given that they were the predominant people in the state. Didn't a wild neighbourhood need a tough cop? However dastardly his methods, Milosevic's moral standards were ultimately no different from that of the benighted population from which he had sprung.

This cartoon image of the Balkans – enshrined in the image beloved of leader writers and foreign-ministry spokesmen in the early 1990s, of a region riven by "ancient ethnic hatreds" – was about all the Lilliputian figures who dominated western Europe then could handle. They were at a loss about how to greet the imminent unification of Germany. The looming break-up of the Soviet Union provoked panic (or even, from France's President Mitterrand, a readiness to recognise as legitimate the August 1991 putschists).

This spinelessness encouraged Milosevic to press ahead with his strategy of deliberately breaking up the country by provoking quarrels with smaller republics, then using the military force he had accumulated to recentralise the country around a Serbian core, with all previously mixed areas being "cleansed" of non-Serb inhabitants. Daniele Conversi has described this as a policy of "central secession", where one set of rulers demolishes its state in order to build something very different on the vacant site.

The costs of tolerance

European Union monitors' reports from the war raging in Croatia in the second half of 1991 described the Yugoslav army shelling homes, schools and hospitals, and shone light into some at least of the dark corners. The siege of Vukovar and the shelling of Dubrovnik that autumn might have proved to be a turning-point. Italy and Germany called for intervention by the military allies of the Western European Union (WEU), primarily to protect civilians; Britain's foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, successfully opposed this. He cited Britain's experience of Northern Ireland to argue that WEU intervention would require extensive manpower, lead to loss of life, and almost certainly become "open-ended and long-lasting".

This was the first of many interventions from Britain's Conservative government insisting on a minimalist response to the conflict (the entire melancholy story is told in Brendan Simms's book Unfinest Hour: How Britain Helped to Destroy Bosnia, 2001 ). Britain blocked all good ideas, such as imposing a United Nations trusteeship on Bosnia on the eve of war there in April 1992, lifting the arms embargo to enable Bosnian Muslims to defend themselves, and even the establishment of a UN war-crimes tribunal.

Hurd (later to distinguish himself by acting as a consultant in Belgrade on the sale of the Serbian telecommunication system while Milosevic was still in power) never deviated from the views he had expressed in July 1991: "at the end of the day, [the people of Yugoslavia] have decided what they want is a civil-war; it will be a reproach to Europe but we cannot prevent it".

The west thus surrendered the chance to (for example) issue threats against those contemplating or preparing violence against civilians, which Nato (or even Western European Union) states would have been well able to act upon. It could have made constructive appeals over the heads of the "entrepreneurs" of ethnic conflict to the peoples of Yugoslavia, offering reconstruction programmes and the prospect of integration into a wider Euro-Atlantic community of states. Many of those who profited from violence would have spurned such appeals, but many more might have been inspired to mobilise in the crisis knowing they were not being ignored by the west.

Instead, when the European Union (and later the UN and the United States) sought to broker various peace agreements, they did so from within a worldview of nationalism. These international bodies and governments treated leaders who had sanctioned high crimes as respectable negotiating partners, whose diplomatic role had no real connection with those committing atrocities on the ground. Border changes, an exchange of populations and permanent accommodation with figures who had used massive violence to attain their ends were to be the instruments of peace.

For more on Slobodan Milosevic and the wars of ex-Yugoslavia in openDemocracy, see our "Reimagining Yugoslavia" debate, including:

Anthony Dworkin, "The trial of Milosevic: global law or war?"
(February 2002)

Alix Kroeger, "Bosnia's war of memory"
(August 2002)

Dejan Djokic, "The assassination of Zoran Djindjic" (March 2003)

Ivan Krastev, "The European Union and the Balkans: enlargement or empire?" (June 2005)

Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life" (June 2005)

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (July 2005)

James Walston, "Kosovo: the end of the beginning"
(October 2005)

Andrew Wachtel, "The western Balkan outlook: beyond 2007" (November 2005)

If you find this material enjoyable or provoking please consider commenting in our forums – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The blindness of power

Such misguided and short-term strategies – exemplified by allowing Milosevic and Tudjman to act as guarantors of regional peace – paved the way for greater instability in the long run. The US-imposed Dayton agreement of November 1995 is an example; it brought peace of a sort to Bosnia, after President Clinton realised the damage to US prestige (and possibly to his own re-election) caused by the continuation of a war in which brigands were regularly able to take hostage hundreds of Nato troops in UN uniform.

But Dayton also legitimised enforced partition, and ethnic cleansing and intimidation of moderates continued in many places. There was no mention of individual rights (only ethnic group rights) in the agreement hastily drawn up by lawyers in the US state department, and individuals representing the still sizeable peace constituency in Bosnia got no invitations to the conference. Misha Glenny's The Fall of Yugoslavia (1996) quotes a US diplomat who had been close to Milosevic in 1994-95 describing him at Dayton as "rather like a mafia boss who's gotten tired of doing drugs in the Bronx and now wants to move down to Palm Peach to do junk bonds".

David Harland, a UN official responsible for drawing up the UN's damning report on its own conduct leading up to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995, wrote that "Bosnia has taught much to all of us about how not to implement a peace agreement". A new and varied cast of western politicians – Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair and Joschka Fischer among them – did eventually conclude that Milosevic was indeed the number one problem in the region. Dayton had evaded the difficult problem of Kosovo, thus leaving Milosevic with a free hand there; but when he stepped up his attempts to deport large numbers of Kosovar Albanians, Nato stopped him and ejected his military forces from the territory in 1999. But the flawed and insensitive military tactics Nato used did not – as was promised at the time, not least in Tony Blair's Chicago speech of 22 April 1999, in the midst of the Kosovo war – presage a new era in which coherent rules were worked out by the international community for humanitarian intervention.

Throughout the period, the Atlantic democracies squandered a lot of their credibility through their shallow response to essentially transitory figures who could probably have been warned off by a few stern telephone calls from western leaders backed by the realistic threat of limited force. The departed Milosevic has long been largely unloved back home, a black-hearted crook who stole the future of millions. But his years of defiance in power and at The Hague tribunal have made him a poster-boy for the outriders of the "new world disorder" who are now emboldened by the way the disaster in Iraq has weakened western legitimacy.

How ironic that Tito, a communist monarch who brought his country unprecedented international respect by heading the non-aligned movement was replaced by Milosevic, the prototype for a gangster leader who organised its destruction in order to satisfy his own stupendous lust for power.

Meanwhile, as the wealthy European Union states pick up the bill in order to prevent the criminality now rampant in parts of ex-Yugoslavia from subverting their own societies, and the United States seeks vainly to impose order on an insurgent Iraq, Slobodan Milosevic might be forgiven a ghostly smile from his grave. Now the west must learn the lessons of the last sixteen years – and start again.

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