bosnia report
New Series No:32-34 December - July 2003
The dysfunctional functionary
by Noel Malcolm

Review of Adam LeBor, Milošević: A Biography, Bloomsbury 2002, 388 pp. £20


‘There are’ , writes the veteran Balkan correspondent Adam LeBor at the end of this book, ‘two Slobodan Miloševićes. One is a charming Balkan rogue - or at least he wants to be seen as one - a confidant of presidents and ambassadors, a deft schmoozer of Western diplomats. The other is an authoritarian provincial Communist functionary of limited vision and a poor strategic sense.’

No one who has studied Milošević's career could disagree with either of those two portraits. But there is also a third Slobodan Milošević, a character who emerges gradually from the pages of LeBor's book: Milošević the instigator and coordinator of brutality on a colossal scale. This third persona is the one now in the spotlight at the International Tribunal in the Hague, where the former Yugoslav President is charged with responsibility for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Inevitably, the interest of most readers of this biography will focus primarily on Milošević No 3. They will want to know whether this man was responsible for mass murder, and, if so, how he had developed the motives and mentality that made him capable of such a thing. After all, the typical ‘authoritarian provincial Communist functionary’ may be a nasty piece of work, but his crimes are normally confined to corruption, nepotism, and falsifying statistics about the production of left boots. Organising murder squads is another matter. Adam LeBor's book is a full-length biography, not a legal indictment; and, in any case, historical writing and court procedure operate by rather different rules. Nevertheless, no unbiased reader of this book can fail to conclude that Milošević's prime responsibility is plainly established here, every step of the way: responsibility for the political strategy that led to war, for the launching of armed conflict in Croatia and Bosnia, and, above all, for the encouragement and deployment of the brutal paramilitaries who did so much of the killing.

No signature

Milošević could not fail to know that civilians were being murdered by these paramilitaries; as LeBor shows, his own organs of state, headed by his closest colleagues, had trained and supplied them, and sped them on their way to their intended victims. True, he took care not to leave his signature on the relevant documents. But the pretence of innocence and ignorance, so assiduously kept up in the presence of Western diplomats and journalists, was sometimes dropped. In one confidential conversation in 1993, noted here by LeBor, when Milošević was asked about the gangster Arkan (leader of the worst of the paramilitaries), he laughed loudly and said: ‘I too must have someone to do certain kinds of dirty work for me.’

All of which can only make the question of ‘why’ more pressing: why did this rather colourless Communist functionary come to organise the destruction of human life on such a scale? Was he driven by blood-and-soil nationalism, a fanatical devotion to the unification of Serbian land? The evidence clearly indicates that he was not; though he used nationalist rhetoric from time to time, he was quick to abandon the Serbs of Croatia or Bosnia whenever it suited his interests to do so.

Was he, as some supposed, propelled along his destructive course by that hard-line ideologist and frumpish Lady Macbeth, his beloved wife Mira Markovic? Not if one believed what she wrote in her own newspaper column, where she exclaimed against ethnic cleansing and defended her Communist principles against his nationalist allies.

Folie a deux

But then, it was always difficult to know what was believable about this woman's performance, except her own self-absorption. Adam LeBor has interviewed her at length, and reproduces her maunderings with what may at first strike the reader as undue consideration. Gradually, however, one sees the value of this procedure. Readers are given a real sense of the mentality that must have reigned in the Milošević household: a cold, undramatic but none the less quite pathological folie B deux, in which any criticism or opposition to their own interest (or that of their spoilt hooligan son) was to be either ignored or crushed.

LeBor has interviewed many other relatives, colleagues and members of Milošević's inner circle. What emerges does not radically change the picture of Milošević that we already had, but many points of detail are filled in, and the essential turning-points in his career are well described and emphasised. Most important of all was his discovery in 1987 that he could force down opposition among the party apparat by appealing to the man (or the crowd) in the street - then an almost unknown procedure in the sclerotic politics of post-Titoist Yugoslavia.

Which prompts a paradoxical thought. It is sometimes said that Milošević operated on the old Communist principle that the end justified the means. Certainly, his extreme lack of moral scruple makes such a comment seem a reasonable one. Yet what really propelled him along his way was not his pursuit of an ultimate end, but his discovery, stage by stage, of political means - that is, of more and more means to secure more power. And so, in effect, the means became the end.

What this meant for the people of Serbia is also well described by LeBor, who has managed to weave a great deal of local political history into his account without ever losing its central focus. Some key powers were centralized; but others, particularly in economic life, were shifted into the hands of friends and cronies who could fund - at arm's length from the government - the paramilitary gangs.

The resulting gangsterization of society had a catastrophic effect on ordinary life, security and public morality. Assassinations multiplied: some gangsters killed other gangsters, some were killed by agents of the state, and a growing number of government officials were gunned down by either gangsters, or agents, or both. Nor was the effect of all this beneficial, in the end, to Milošević, who came to depend more and more on the hard men in his security apparatus; when some of them began to shift their allegiance, he had precious little left to rely on.

This is a valuable account, written with journalistic vigour but also with a solid command of the facts. Readers can use it to reach their own interim verdicts on Slobodan Milošević, while they wait for a final verdict to be handed down at The Hague.

This review appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, 20 October 2000


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