Milosevic, the Perfect Dictator

The New York Times
May 3, 1999

If you are looking for an example of the genius of Slobodan Milosevic, the picture that appeared in newspapers over the weekend, showing him deep in prayer and hand in hand with Jesse Jackson, suffices quite well.

Milosevic is not known for participating in prayer sessions. Nor is the Serbian leader known for holding hands with visitors to his Belgrade office. Instead, he is known as a master of manipulation and improvisation. By releasing three captured American soldiers and engaging in a strange communion with Jackson, Milosevic cast himself as an agent of goodwill and won over to his stop-the-bombing campaign a close friend of President Clinton’s.

This is another demonstration of Milosevic’s dark brilliance. He possesses the utter disregard for human life that is requisite for a dictator yet few of the usual defects. He has remained in power for more than a decade while everything and everyone around him has become engulfed in bombs and flames that he precipitated. He is the perfect dictator.

In the spring of 1993, when the Bosnian war was at full throttle, I interviewed Milosevic at his office in downtown Belgrade. As I stepped inside, he was standing by a bank of windows on the other side of the chamber. He moved toward me and tossed out an unusual greeting: “Why are you writing lies about my country?”

His words were sharp but spoken in a suffering tone that seemed intended to make me feel sorry for him and his maligned nation. We shook hands, lightly, and he motioned for me to sit in an armchair at a coffee table. He sat next to me, close enough to tap my forearm when he wanted to emphasize a point. He offered me a Dutch cigarillo from a box on the table.

He was dressed in an unremarkable blue suit and looked like the anonymous, baby-faced banker he used to be. He was curt in only a few instances. He didn’t appreciate my questions about why people called him a war criminal, and when we discussed Kosovo he sternly reminded me several times in his occasionally imperfect English that “Kosovo is heart of Serbia.”

If you did not know better, you would not think a man as urbane as Milosevic could possibly do the evil deeds he was accused of. In the early years of his rule, he made such a winning impression on foreign visitors that one Congressman even invited him to a prayer breakfast at the White House. He never made it to Washington, but he just clocked a minute of prayer with Jackson.

Nor does he suffer the imperfections of the Mobutu species of dictators, who are vain and corrupt to illogical proportions and eventually are brought down because of it. Before he was chased out of Congo in 1997, Mobutu had his likeness plastered onto everything imaginable, including the clothing worn by millions of his unfortunate subjects. His full name was Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku wa za Banga, translated by his Government as, “The all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.”

Milosevic’s title is less grand: president. He wears nothing more flashy than a double-breasted suit. During the interview, I asked why he infrequently appeared on television. “I think there is enough of me in the media,” he smiled. “I don’t want to, how to say, to torture with my presence every day.”

Nor is Milosevic in the Pol Pot mold of dictator. The Cambodian despot pursued a hyper-Maoist ideology of re-engineering his nation, and to this end his Khmer Rouge soldiers murdered more than a million people, mostly educated city dwellers. He was a dictator possessed of an insane vision that eventually roused sufficient outrage to stop him.

Milosevic, whose parents committed suicide in his younger years, has no vision, no ideology, just an agile yet dark intellect and a mission to hold on to power at any cost, even war. At the moment, he has embraced nationalism; he may discard it, as he did in 1995 when he let Croatia drive out several hundred thousand Serbs. He is not defending Kosovo because he cherishes it; he reasons, correctly, that he could tumble from power if he surrenders it without a fight.

There is also the Saddam Hussein species of dictator, whose hold on power is maintained by little more than fierce brutality. Hussein is infamous for, among other things, convening a meeting of his Baath Party shortly after seizing power and, one by one, accusing officials of disloyalty; they were led out of the hall and never seen again. But a dictatorship based on terror alone is brittle; if a coup occurred in Baghdad tomorrow, few people would be surprised.

Milosevic does not execute rivals or would-be rivals. For example, take a look at Vuk Draskovic, a lucky fellow who was fired last week from his job as a minister in Milosevic’s Government. In most dictatorships, the fate of an insufficiently loyal minister can be quite ghastly. Weeks of torture, decades in jail, a bullet in the head–these are the ways most despots deal with people who step out of line or are suspected of stepping out of line. The brand-name dictators of our century did not bother with pink slips.

Draskovic, an erratic opposition leader who at one time was hospitalized after a police beating, joined Milosevic’s Government just a few months ago and was ousted after suggesting that Milosevic and his powerful wife, Mira Markovic, were prolonging the war for political purposes. In Serbia, that’s a firing offense, not a capital crime.

This is why, I suppose, security was so light when I interviewed Milosevic. Although there was talk, even then, that NATO might bomb Belgrade, the guards at the entrance to his presidential palace gave me a cursory once-over. As a secretary led me through the building’s gloomy corridors, I noticed no aides shuttling about, no generals with maps under their arms, no security guards. The palace was deserted.

Milosevic’s office was strangely empty, too. A waiter entered once with Turkish coffee and orange juice, but otherwise we were alone for 90 minutes; there was no assistant taking notes, no bodyguard. Just me and Slobodan Milosevic, confident and unafraid and all-powerful, a survivor of the highest order.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.