Balkan Ghost

Slobodan Milosevic, former President of Yugoslavia, died on March 11, 2006, in a Dutch prison before he could have been convicted of crimes committed during the Balkan Wars of the nineties. Characteristically, he had turned an international trial into a personal political platform, taking advantage of the court to prolong it for four years and completely frustrating his enemies in the process. Equally frustrating was the manner of his death, which could be interpreted as suicide or murder, depending upon one’s view of Milosevic.

Often styled a fierce Serb nationalist by his supporters or “the Butcher of the Balkans” by his enemies, Milosevic was the first of a deadly crop of post-Soviet era politicians to molt from communist into nationalist. He also proved among the most clever in exploiting the ambiguities at the end of the Cold War. Therein lies a tale not without application to our current dilemmas.

Serbia’s Champion

Milosevic was born in 1941, the year the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, and spent his childhood in wartime Serbia. His family life, though apparently conventional, carried an overture of tragedy; both parents would take their own lives. The future wrecker of Yugoslavia grew up in the state invented by Tito, a charismatic and cunning dictator who created a state that balanced four claimants, all sharply distinctive in history and religion: the Orthodox Serbs; the Catholic Slovenes and Croats; the old Ottoman-era bureaucratic class, the Bosniak Muslims; and the Albanian Muslims living in Kosovo, the historic heart of Serbian nationalism. The more economically advanced part of this polity, the Slovenes and Croats, subsidized the more numerous but less developed Serbs, with the Muslims in between and the Kosovars in a special autonomous region.

Tito maneuvered this unwieldy mass on the borderline of West and East, North and South, through a carefully calculated domestic policy and an equally shrewd intake of American, Soviet, and European favors, never quite satisfying any of them. Increasingly given to ceremony that resembled the Hapsburg Monarchy of his youth, Tito ran an authoritarian rather than a totalitarian regime. Moreover, Tito liked money. As a result, Yugoslavia could count itself among the economic success stories of the communist countries through selective and often corrupt bending of the rules to stimulate growth.

Tito died in May 1980. He left a rotating presidency based on the careful ethnic and religious mix of his heyday. By the mid-eighties, however, the economic success of earlier reforms had run aground into a recession and demands for more reform aggravated the issue of intercommunal relations—namely, who was to get what out of a suddenly declining pie. This was compounded by waning Western interest in Yugoslavia as the Cold War petered out.

At this juncture, Slobodan Milosevic was a conventional, if able, bureaucrat, with a law degree, experience in state finances, and a role in the Belgrade Communist Party organization. He, like many others, faced the critical problem of redefining his career amid a dramatic change in the very nature of the state that had educated him. No one who knew him at this time could have predicted his solution: the communist functionary became a nationalist demagogue.

On April 24, 1987, while calming a riotous crowd of Serb complainants in Kosovo Polje who had been forcibly denied entry to the Town Hall, Milosevic announced his vocation when he assured the crowd that “no one will ever beat you again.” This was a carefully contrived event; there was never anything spontaneous about Milosevic. He had decided to exploit Serbia’s distinctive national narrative, a story of repeated martyrdom beginning in defeat by the Turks on June 15, 1389 at the “Field of Blackbirds” in Kosovo.

One of Milosevic’s first victims was his long-time mentor, the leader of the Serbian Communist Party, Ivan Stambolic. Stambolic later uttered a judgment on his protege “Slobo” much beloved by aficionados of Balkan politics: “When somebody looks at your back for 25 years, it is understandable that he gets the desire to put a knife in it at some point.” It remains only to note that Stambolic mysteriously disappeared from Belgrade in 2000. His remains were found three years later. This crime was attributed by a special Belgrade court to Milosevic’s secret police.

Once mounted on the tiger of Serbian nationalism, Milosevic could not and would not dismount. Any attempt to remake Yugoslavia entirely in Serbia’s image, of course, meant the state’s breakdown. Milosevic determined that it had to be broken down before it could be built up.

The new champion of Serbia could not have done it alone. He had a willing colleague —later opponent — in Franjo Tudjman — party boss of Croatia. Had it only been up to them, they would have divided the state more or less equally. There were inconvenient obstacles, however, such as Bosnia and international recognition. The last opportunity for internal cohesion was lost when the real political backbone of Yugoslavia, the Communist Party, imploded in 1989.

Milosevic Triumphant, the West Divided

As President of Serbia, Milosevic precipitated the breakup of Yugoslavia when he engineered the seizure of the Central Bank’s reserves in spring 1991. These would provide his war chest. In reaction, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence in May.

Yugoslavia’s impending demise found the West distracted by the reunification of Germany and then Saddam’s seizure of Kuwait. Germany and Austria, acting independently of the EU, recognized Croatian and Slovenian independence, citing historic ties. And Washington, while Yugoslavia had been an American “account” during the Cold War, offered only bromides about the importance of unity. As Secretary of State Baker would later put it, the U.S. “had no dog in this fight.”

The Serbian minority in Croatia was separated from Serbia by the mixed state of Bosnia-Herzegovina: forty per cent Muslim, thirty per cent Serb and eighteen per cent Croats. After Croatia and Slovenia left, Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic sought more power for the Muslims now that they comprised a larger part of the remaining population of the Yugoslav state. Milosevic drew out negotiations with Izetbegovic to gain time. When, on March 3, 1992, Izetbegovic declared independence, Milosevic was ready.

The Serbs in Bosnia rebelled and, aided by the well-equipped and well-trained Yugoslav army under Serbian control, quickly carved out a corridor covering their own population and linking up with another Serb insurgency, this one in Croatia. The unprepared Bosnian government lost two-thirds of the country and its capital Sarajevo was cruelly besieged. The Croatians, too, had lost a third of their new state.

The Croatian and Bosnian Serbs then began what came to be called “ethnic cleansing.” This was the forcible removal of Muslims (and other minorities) from the corridor linking the Serbs to Serbia proper. Milosevic claimed he had no influence over such activities, although the militias doing the work were well-supplied and commanded by former Yugoslav officers who still retained their commissions.

As the violence mounted, French president Mitterand saw an opportunity for a European initiative independent of the Americans and NATO. He went to Belgrade and reminded Milosevic of France’s historic alliance with Serbia in World War I that rescued the Serbs from Austrian vengeance. But he found the Serbian leader more interested in his views about what Washington would do. This chilled the conversation. Very soon Mitterand was caught up in other matters, including his own mortal illness. There would be no European initiative.

Europe unable, America unwilling, what was left? The UN, of course. French, British, and Dutch peacekeepers were dispatched to “observe” a set of cease-fires, their stern gaze reinforced by that last refuge of failed multilateralism, an arms embargo that hampered the Croats and Bosniaks but not the Serbs, who drew on former Yugoslav army stocks. These actions told Milosevic that the big powers did not distinguish between arsonist and fireman. The cease-fires in Bosnia were soon figments as the Serbs tried to consolidate their positions.

Moments of Truth

The Balkan fighting had exposed European pretensions. Now came a moment of truth for the UN. Much had been made, even by the United States, of the idea that a “new international order” relying on a united UN Security Council could, after the end of the Cold War, fulfill the vision of 1945 in assuring world peace. It seemed to work. In the early nineties, the UN had nearly 100,000 troops deployed under its authority around the world. Its Secretary General had begun to speak of its potential for peacemaking, not only peacekeeping.

In Bosnia, however, UN forces neither made nor kept the peace. Ethnic cleansing proceeded apace. The local Serbs treated the “blue helmets” with increasing contempt. It was easy enough. UN forces in the field were subjected to the indecision of distant, incompetent bureaucrats. Soon, the UN forces began to look like hostages themselves.

In Washington, the newly elected President Clinton and his officials denounced humanitarian outrages in the Balkans. Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited Europe in the spring of 1993 to stiffen the allies but refused their request for American military participation. Even before he returned, Clinton, newly read in Balkan history, decided he didn’t want to be part of it. Later that year, the Somalia disaster reinforced the Administration’s resolve to stay clear of any further peacekeeping adventures.

Then the Serbs overreached. In July 1995, they massacred Muslim civilians, often seizing them in full view of lightly armed Dutch soldiers guarding a so-called UN “safe haven” in Srebrenica. In other places, French troops were tied humiliatingly to poles.

This was too much for newly-elected President Jacques Chirac. He decided that he would have to change minds in Washington before he could change them in Belgrade. It was time, he announced, to get tough with Serbia or get out. Chirac’s insistence on action coincided with Senator Dole’s veto-proof congressional demand to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. France (and Britain) declared that such an event would precipitate a withdrawal of their forces. And most telling, Chirac then reminded Clinton that as a NATO ally he would invoke the alliance to aid their removal.

The EU had failed. The UN had failed. Would NATO — read: the United States — now also fail?

Dayton And Kosovo

Clinton was boxed and he acted at last. In August of 1995 when the Serbs violated yet another cease-fire, the UN, after U.S. prompting, finally authorized a NATO air raid on Serb forces. Simultaneously, boots began to move on the ground. These turned out to be Croatian; Tudjman had worked around the arms embargo to organize an effective force. His surprise offensive rolled the Serbs back in Croatia and away from the Dalmatian coast toward the Serb heartland in Bosnia.

Milosevic then resolved to rescue what he could. He agreed to join Tudjman and Izetbegovic at a U.S.-sponsored conference in Dayton, Ohio. There the Bosnian, Croat, and Serb leaders received the impatient ministrations of Richard Holbrooke, a formidable U.S. diplomat whose personal demons over the use of American force abroad after Vietnam had been exorcised by the Bosnian massacres.

Milosevic had grown overconfident. Money was short, the currency grossly inflated, the economy reeling. Russia and an old ally from Tito’s time, China, would not support a Yugoslav army intervention to save the Serbs of Bosnia.

The resulting Dayton Agreement (December 14, 1995) followed closely the cease-fire lines established by the combatants. Bosnia’s three communities (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs) were to invent a new polity under international tutelage. Peace would be enforced by international troops, including a U.S. component. Refugees were to return to their homes, reversing ethnic cleansing.

Milosevic had not been able to create a greater Serbia that included the northern swath of Bosnia extending to Croatia. Yet, he did appear to forge a partnership with the United States. The arsonist, through Dayton, transmuted into the firefighter.

Various diplomats have described Milosevic’s behavior at the conference. A bulky figure fond of plum brandy, he exuded a gangster’s charm. One could forget what it was all about in the warmth of his conviviality but this, too, was contrived. A moody loner who trusted only his didactic wife, Slobo was a ruthless figure remote from humanity. Power mattered; the rest was merely instrumental.

The Dayton Agreement did not deal with Kosovo, a problem judged too difficult to settle alongside Bosnia. But four years of war elsewhere had deepened Kosovar rejection of an increasingly severe Serb overlordship. When the neighboring Albanian government was abruptly felled by internal strife, weapons and fighters streamed across the border where they found a welcome reception.

Milosevic conveniently interpreted Dayton to mean a free hand for himself in Kosovo. After all, everyone agreed that the province was part of Yugoslavia, and he had been elected president fairly in 1997. He resolved to fix the problem of disaffected Kosovars by ridding the province of them. Three-quarters of a million were driven out in 1998 by the Yugoslav Army.

This time, neither the United States nor the Europeans bothered with the UN Security Council where Russian and Chinese vetoes awaited any resolution that would authorize military action against Yugoslavia. So, in 1998, NATO went to war for the first time in its history without benefit of a UN blessing.

Clinton began by announcing that no ground forces would be needed. This time, however, there were no Croats to supply the infantry. The Albanian gangs willing to fight, like the Mujahaddin who had aided the Bosniaks, were not the sort the West wanted to liberate Kosovo. Instead, air power was assigned the job.

The bombers could not expel the dug-in Yugoslav army in Kosovo, a rugged place not amenable to such warfare. So the campaign began with the rear areas, namely, Serbia itself. Disabling the centralized electricity, transport, and communication systems was easy enough but less precise than desired because of the high altitudes flown by the bombers to avoid an anti-aircraft system far superior to Saddam’s.

Nor was intelligence infallible. The campaign had been launched too quickly for thorough reconnaissance. The Chinese embassy, wrongly identified by out-of-date information, was thoroughly bombed, setting off violent demonstrations in Beijing and elsewhere; to this day, few Chinese believe it was a mistake. Destroying the Danube bridges also blocked a vital shipping channel for several states upstream.

The Serbs could not be subdued by air power alone. Only when the Russians persuaded Milosevic that NATO ground forces, activated after four months of bombing, would indeed assault Kosovo, did Milosevic relent. He could not resist like Saddam. Opposition in Belgrade had mounted apace. Milosevic hastily agreed to the occupation of Kosovo by NATO forces.

The NATO victory soured, however, when a British general refused Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark’s orders to evict the Russians from Pristina Airport when they had arrived suddenly to rescue Russian prestige.

In the Dock

Kosovo, where Milosevic had begun, became his end. There was no way to disguise the truth. Eight years of warfare left Yugoslavia dismembered, impoverished, and isolated. It proved another grim chapter of Serbia’s martyrdom, this time largely self-inflicted.

Milosevic, blindly confident that he could blind the Serbs again, undid himself politically by calling a snap election. He lost. The army, humiliated beyond endurance, defected from his side. Options gone, Milosevic retreated into bitter house arrest.

It was still not over. In 1992, frustrated by inaction, Milosevic’s one-time acquaintance Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger launched the lawyers against him in the form of an international war crimes tribunal. NATO forces in Bosnia, especially the French, had been remarkably unwilling to risk the cease-fire by seizing Milosevic’s local henchman, notably Karadic and most importantly the man who ordered the Srebenica massacre, General Mladic. But Milosevic was secured for an international trial when the western powers forced the newly democratic Serbian government to choose between rehabilitation and the “Butcher of the Balkans.”

Ailing but defiant, Milosevic put his gift for detecting irresolution and timidity to good use. He became his own counsel, berating judges and witnesses alike with apparent impunity. The purpose of such trials is multifold: justice for the victims; deterrence for the future; a way to transfer guilt from whole populations to their leaders thereby facilitating reconciliation. In this case, the international judges, inadvertently cooperating with Milosevic, soon sabotaged most of these purposes. Too many charges, too much ranting and raving, no smoking guns or paper trails. Milosevic played the victim to the hilt, marrying himself once more to Serb martyrdom. Four years and over $60 million dollars passed this way.

As the end neared, Milosevic played his final bid to escape. His heart problems, he insisted, could only be cured by Russian specialists in their own clinics. He needed to see his family, themselves refugees in Russia from charges of corruption in Belgrade. The international court, which had allowed him a private office and unsupervised discussions with witnesses and friends (also a source of liquor and drugs), refused to let him go. For Milosevic, this was clear evidence that his enemies, unable to convict an innocent man, were poisoning him. Whether his fatal heart attack was self-induced or just a final miscalculation, Milosevic was dead at age sixty-four. He was buried in his backyard in Serbia, his family absent.

In a macabre sequence of events, Milosevic’s chief accuser had committed suicide a week before his own death. And on March 12, large crowds in Belgrade marked the third anniversary of the assassination of Milosevic’s opponent and successor, Zoran Djindic. The others in the drama, Tudjman and Izetbegovic, had already died.

The Balkan Ghost

It would be convenient to write off Milosevic’s career as a violent deviation from the progress toward a whole and free Europe prescribed by the United States and its allies at the end of the Cold War. Yet, the Balkan Ghost continues to hover over international relations, for Milosevic’s career exposed certain unpleasant truths about the post-Cold War international system, the ways and means of military intervention, the challenge of failed states, and the working of law courts and alliances.

The first lesson is that the international order, although remarkably stable at the Great Power level, is remarkably frail beneath that threshold. Even as the Balkan crisis in 1914 exposed the bellicosity lurking beneath Europe’s Great Power balance, the 1991 crisis revealed that the Great Powers had little in the way of deadly quarrels with each other. An incident at Sarajevo would not trigger a general war. That was all to the good. But, simultaneously, the Balkan conflict revealed that the post-Cold War order could still be badly disrupted. Before international action ended the carnage, 300,000 were killed, two million displaced, and a region wrecked. European and U.N. pretensions were exposed, as was U.S. reluctance to risk its own troops. Only grotesque massacres, which earlier intervention could have prevented, made later intervention politically possible. There were no profiles in courage here.

A second lesson concerns military intervention and its purpose. The dry tinder of history lay everywhere in the Balkans, but someone had to light the match. Milosevic, the chief arsonist, however, was not the target of intervention. Instead, troops were dispatched initially on a “humanitarian mission.” It should be clear that there are no such things; every military intervention has political consequences. The only issue is whether the arsonist will be properly identified, and the firemen deployed to extinguish his activity. In short, these crises are not the products of nature. They are man-made. A confused objective inevitably means failure.

A third lesson carries over today. Failed states are not so easily fixed. Ten years after President Clinton declared U.S. troops would stay only a year or two, international forces — now largely European — guarantee an uneasy peace. Billions of dollars, hundreds of NGOs, and several EU High Commissioners have failed to turn Bosnia into a working state. The victimization ideology — the foreigners are always to blame — still prevails. And the Kosovars are demanding independence once more. All of this raises the ugly prospect that international forces may have to stay a lot longer — almost in the manner of the old Ottoman or Austrian Empires — before these peoples can live together peacefully, if ever. This ghost haunts proposed international action in Darfur and already afflicts the U.S.-led enterprises in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A fourth lesson teaches the old truth that justice delayed is justice denied. The war crimes court provided a full employment act for lawyers but not the expeditious punishment expected. As a result, most of the objectives of Milosevic’s trial were not achieved. A similar blunder has affected the Saddam Hussein prosecution in Baghdad where an Iraqi court, even limited to a very few charges, has already been frustrated by Saddam’s Milosevic-like performance — more than two full years after his capture. There, too, the Balkan ghost has cast a baleful spell. The western tendency to let lawyers meddle is a recipe for muddle.

Finally, a last lesson still unlearned. The Balkan wars did not find the Western powers quick or effective in upholding their own principles. Some of the trauma lingered. After 9/11, the Americans rudely refused NATO’s offer to help in attacking Afghanistan, partly because U.S. commanders did not want to be burdened by Kosovo-like committee warfare. There and in Iraq, however, the Bush Administration’s desire to avoid a Balkan-style occupation — lots of boots on the ground — badly hampered plans to secure the fruits of victory. And on the political side, the French experience with Clinton in 1995 probably made Chirac overconfident about his ability to influence George W. Bush in 2003. If the western powers are to protect their interests in the future, they will need to exorcise the Balkan ghost still haunting the halls of NATO.