Monday, March 13, 2006

In memoriam: Slobodan Milosevic

Dictators rule by keeping their inferiors divided and Tito was no exception. His Yugoslavia was a "federation" where the numerically dominant Serbs where kept "in check" by a union of the different minorities. This was a recipe for disaster once the Tito died and Yugoslavia became more democratic.

After Tito's death Yugoslavia bacame rudderless. The coalition of the most advanced and the most backward member states was not capable to formulate an economic policy - or any policy at all.

It is often said that Milosevic rose to power on a wave of Serb nationalism. But that is a very inaccurate description of the situation. The federation created a climate where every republic had to fight for its own interests: it led to polarisation instead of cooperation - in every republic you saw a rise of nationalism. And it led to the call for a stronger central government. It was on those two waves in public opinion that Milosevic rose to power.

I believe that a federation is an impossible form of government in a democracy. A country needs a core around which it is organized. In the case of Yugoslavia it was clear that Serbia had to be the core. At a short distance you would have the other Serbo-Croat speaking areas: Bosnia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Croatia. Those republics could very well be melded together. The world is full of countries with more than one religion. At the third level you would have the Slovenes, Macedonians and Albanians who would have special minority rights.

Such a construction would not mean that the Serbs had more power than the others. It would just be the application of the "one man - one vote" principle. It might need some gestures to make it acceptable for the other Serbo-Croat speaking groups. For example one might have moved the capital to Tuzla or some other more central place. Another gesture might have been the abolishment of the cyrillic Alphabet for the Serb language.

It is not nostalgia that makes me consider these possibilities. I believe that Milosevic saw the weakness of the federal model and the need for a stronger core. Unfortunately he was not as a visionary, but rather instinct driven. It didn't help either that he didn't have a strong moral attitude. His solution for a stronger core was so rude that he not only failed to formulate an attractive future for the non-Serbs, but he actually alienated them - accelerating the breakup.

A similar thing applies to position of the Serb minorities in other republics. Seeing how they were discriminated he was fully right to speak up for them. But somehow he failed to understand that polarisation in the long term undermines the position of minorities.

The Western "mediation" only aggravated the situation. Most of those diplomats didn't understand anything about the issues at stake. The report of the Badinter Commission that guided Western diplomacy during most of the time is one of the worst documents ever written. It tried to impose some random values that were in fashion at the moment while ignoring other values (and common sense).

A visionary diplomacy might have made up for Milosevic's shortcomings and played on his longing for recognition. Instead we saw an opportunistic diplomacy that spoke about some vile "great-Serbia" ideal, "rightfull longing for self-determination" and the "integrity of borders" without realising that these are just three faces of nationalism.

As Von Clausewitz said: war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. This was very true for Milosevic. But he was not the only one: all sides tried to create facts on the ground instead of waiting for diplomacy. What is striking on the Serb side is that so much of that violence was useless. There was no advantage in the massacre at Srebrenica and the Muslims of Prijedor could have been safely left as an irrelevant minority in the Serb Republic. But somehow the leadership didn't recognize this.

But here too international politics didn't help. Milosevic was very much a provincial guy who didn't understand international politics and was every time surprised when the internationals turned against him. This made the conflicts for him unpredictable and resulted in unnecessary victims. It is very well possible that if the West had left the situation alone Milosevic calculations might have worked much better and much less blood would have been spilled.

I consider it legallized torture to keep someone locked up for 10 years in a strange country far from his family where he has to attend nearly daily some stressful process. Only very strong people can keep up with that for so long and it is no coincidence that the Yugoslavia Tribunal has seen quite a few people die in prison or shortly after a medical release. A process is meant to be a place where it is decided whether someone is guilty - not as a punishment in itself.

Prosecutor Del Ponte has a history in prosecuting maffia leaders. With the maffia it is considered quite acceptable to do everything to get and keep them behind bars. And it is considered very important to get the leaders. Mrs. Del Ponte has applied the same principles to the Yugoslavia Tribunal. The claims made by the prosecution are generally very wide and have in many cases proved to be untenable. They have helped the prosecution to indict leaders like Milosevic and Mladic, but the price has been a loss of focus and moral authority.

The Tribunal has been most successful in concrete cases like Srebrenica, the Omarska concention camp and Foca. But in the case of Milosevic where it tried to prove broad and vague accusations it has gone nowhere. Even if Milosevic had been convicted it would have been widely seen as victors justice.

The Tribunal could have been a place where moral rules where set for how to behave in a conflict area. Instead it has become a circus that must confirm the West in their belief that they were on the right side. Prosecutor Mrs Del Ponte makes on me the impression to be obsessed about her career. She is a master in Orwellian newspeak and has managed to let many people believe that "indicted war criminal" is the same as "convicted war criminal". The carelessness with which she handles the rights of the suspects and her behaviour in the court room make me wonder whether she cares any more for all those senseless deaths in former Yugoslavia than Milosevic.

Milosevic was for me a rather mediocre guy with one outstanding quality: a feeling for politics and how to acquire and keep power. He lacked strong convictions and was morally weak. History placed him in the middle of number of conflicts and he failed conspicuously. But I don't think he deserves to be blamed as the single culprit. The other parties - including the West - had the same weaknesses. Milosevic blame may be larger than that of the others - but it cannote be determined without determining the blame of the others as well.


Anonymous said...

I think the West is way more guilty than you give it credit. It should have bombed Belgrade in 1993 and not wait many more massacres.

P.S. Your notion that if Serbs were left to their senses, they would have found their way to sanity is truly naive. Try explaining this gem to a Sarajevan.

Estavisti said...

Yeah, I'm sure the 120,000 Sarajevan Serbs who were forced from the city by the "multiethnic" Alija Izetbegovic would agree with you. Or perhaps not.

Steve Hayes said...

What is interesting is that the Western media have claimed that Slovodan Milosevic "orchestrated" the wars of the Yugoslav succession. That presumably includes the incident that started the violence -- the seizure of customs posts along the Austrian border by the Slovenians.

Wim Roffel said...

To Anonymous: it is actually quite easy to explain to Sarajevans that they would have been better off with less international interference. Izetbegovic wanted Sarajevo be be shelled because it gave him publicity as a victim in the West. When the Serbs "forgot" to shell he organized raids on the Serb villages in the neighbourhood in order to reactivate the shelling.

WARchild said...

Yeah, it would have been better for Sarajevans to have been bombed only haphazardly instead of constantly for four years. Appealing to the West sure makes things awful for the victims. Just let Serbs bombard you when they are done eating their roasted pigs up in the hills. Don't ruin their fun.

Steve Hayes, it's interesting how you choose that point to start your timeline. Mine starts when Milosevic bullied the two autonomous regions and Montenegro out of their votes in the federal presidency and seized the treasury and started printing illegaly Dinars behind the back of other republics. By controlling the presidency, Milosevic could have done anything he wanted with Yugoslavia. Slovenia seized the border because the vast majority of its citizens voted for independence. It had good reasons to leave a relationship with a hysterical member prone to bullying, violence and drunken outbursts. Time has proven it right.

Wim Roffel said...

Warchild. A lot of Serbs died in the war as well. So that statement about "Serbs roasting pigs in the hills" sounds to me very ugly.

Wars tend to end when both parties believe that there is nothing to gain by continuing the fight. It was the hope of Western intervention that gave Izetbegovic the motive to reject the Lisbon proposal and it was the same hope that let him keep on fighting insted of seeking a compromise.

I think that your start of the timeline when "Milosevic bullied the two autonomous regions and Montenegro out of their votes" is still too late.

Democracy has a tendency to let out all frustrations of people. Even those that politicians don't want to see. If you look at Western Europe you see that if extremist parties come up they usually have some valid points. If the other parties manage to take up those valid points (without the rascist or fascist crap) the extremist parties usually wither.

In the case of Serbia the Serb nationalists had two valid points:
- one was the anti-Serb nature of nationalism in Kosovo and Croatia. They were right to ask some limits and guarantees against that.
- the other was the structure of the republic. The fundament of democracy is "one men, one vote". "One republic, one vote" is only acceptable for a senate, but not for a parliament. "One republic, one vote" was nice for a post-Tito dictatorship, but as soon as democracy was introduced it should have been abolished.

Milosevic came to power because the other republics didn't want to deal with those issues. And when he experienced that his demands would not be met in a nice way he chose to force the issues.

It was a pity that the other republics only believed the ugly image that they had painted for themselves from Milosevic and that they did not want to deal with the valid issues he stood for.

WARchild said...

Milosevic stood for issues?

By the time Milosevic accidentally came to power the ball was already rolling, my friend. Milosevic didn't care one way or another. You know what the answer of one of his advisers (I can't remember the name know) to debacle of Krajina was? "They went too far, they were overextended."

Check out the movie The Death of Yugoslavia. It's made by a Serb TV station and has all the important actors tell the story in their own words.

Wim Roffel said...

With a politician it is often uncertain if they believe what they preach or if they only say it to get votes. But the result is the same.

As you say, Milosevic's policies looked like he only played the nationalist and didn't care very much. I think that's the reason many Serbs voted for Seselj - because the underlying reasons to be nationalist were still there.

As for Milosevic, I believe that the neighbouring countries and the West have done him a big favor by painting him as a rabid nationalist. It made him look like a real nationalist and helped him to put all the blame for his failures on them.

navy said...

Georg Soros and the ICG is only agitation