For Milosevic, to Win Is to Lose

M. Gregg Bloche, a professor of law at Georgetown University and a psychiatrist, has served as a consultant to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Is Slobodan Milosevic mad? Last month, his defiance at The Hague, where he faces trial for alleged war crimes, sparked discussion among believers in Nuremberg-style justice over whether the world had just witnessed the face of evil or the rantings of a crazy person. The former Yugoslav president refused to enter a plea, declined to appoint counsel and dismissed the Hague Tribunal as an “illegal organ.” Asked whether he wanted his indictment read aloud, he told a judge, “That’s your problem.”

This week, the only non-African head of state to be put on trial internationally for his regime’s atrocities will make his second court appearance at The Hague. Conventional wisdom among tribunal watchers is that Milosevic is an ever-cynical survivor who, sooner or later, will mount a lawyerly defense against the prosecution’s essential claim, that he is criminally responsible for atrocities committed against Albanians during the Kosovo War by virtue of his command over Serb forces. But his past opportunism--and its effects on his country and himself--now preclude a survival strategy driven by lawyerly expedience.

Quite plainly, a serious defense would have to be legalistic, given the overwhelming evidence that Serb units under his command killed, raped or otherwise brutalized thousands of Kosovar Albanians. Competent lawyers argue from the evidence, and the weak link in The Hague prosecutors’ case is the paucity of available evidence that Milosevic ordered or openly countenanced the Kosovo atrocities.

Faced with the threat of criminal accountability for mass killings and other horrors, former despots, from Gen. Augusto Pinochet to Pol Pot and his minions, have claimed they knew little or nothing of the unspeakable things done in soccer stadiums, prisons and remote villages on their behalf. Nine days ago, Khieu Samphan, once the Khmer Rouge’s head of state, responded to the growing likelihood of criminal prosecution for surviving Khmer Rouge leaders by issuing a statement asserting that “my mistake was that I was too naive and was out of touch with the real situation"--the deaths of more than 1.7 million Cambodians in the late 1970s.


Rational ex-despots, then, try their best to beat the rap when the law closes in, even to the point of pleading their own political impotence. Milosevic’s failure, so far, to put up a defense inspired Lawrence Weschler of the New Yorker to predict a “drift ... into Unabomberland, with a manifestly brilliant defendant who may also be manifestly out of his mind.” Milosevic’s insolence at The Hague, Weschler wrote last month, “may be evidence of craziness,” to the point that an insanity plea may be his wisest legal course.

But the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, hiding in his Montana cabin, didn’t inspire millions to follow him. Psychotic people--those whom doctors treat with drugs for delusional thinking and who stand a chance of prevailing in court on insanity grounds if they commit crimes--don’t persuade others (even fellow psychotics) that their delusions are true.

On June 28, 1989, in the Kosovar town of Gazimestan, Milosevic, until then a little-known Communist Party official, addressed more than 500,000 rapt Serbs concerning threats to the Serb nation and the need for Serb sacrifice. The rest is Balkan legend--and European nightmare.

Milosevic’s message, about Serbs as historic victims, defiant and heroic in defeat, ignited a high-octane mix of popular fear, pride and anger. Much has been written about the resonance between Milosevic’s message, the disorienting collapse of the communist order and the Serb legend of heroic failure in the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Less has been said about how the good-and-evil caricatures of communist political discourse primed Serbs for equally shallow anti-Muslim and anti-Croat rhetoric. Milosevic the alchemist distilled all this into a nationalism that many Serbs couldn’t resist.


To perform such political alchemy, a leader must be exquisitely attuned to his people’s reality. A truly crazy person could not imaginably pull this off. Indeed, the mark of clinical craziness is disconnection from other people’s reality. By all accounts, Milosevic was an opportunist, not a heartfelt nationalist, when he seized the moment in 1989. But the oft-told story of his cunning misses a psychological truth about leaders, even opportunistic ones, who ignite the passions of their followers: The transforming power of the leader-follower relation flows both ways. Followers who passionately believe in a leader’s message fortify the leader’s confidence in his message. Through this process, the leader who at first crafts a message out of opportunism can become a heartfelt believer.

Through four wars, Milosevic pushed his nationalist message, asked his people to sacrifice for it and drew strength from Serbs’ commitment to it. Many Serbs, including his politically influential wife, were more nationalist than he.

Today, at The Hague, Milosevic embodies the national mythology of defiance that he exploited to gain power. And today, this mythology is all that he has left. As an opportunist, he failed spectacularly. So his life’s meaning has become fused with the Serb myth of heroic defeat.

His survival, in a psychological sense, thus demands something beyond merely beating the rap. To assert that he was “out of the loop” concerning atrocities in Kosovo would challenge The Hague prosecutors at their weakest point. But were he to make this claim, he would forgo his heroic role (in his eyes) as the embodiment of Serb defiance.


We can thus expect from Milosevic and his legal coterie a strategy more focused on enacting Serb myth than on springing him free. Already, he has filed a motion requesting that charges be dropped on the ground that the Hague Tribunal “corrupts justice and law” because it is an illegitimate tool of the powers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This motion, which will surely fail, sends the message to supporters back home that he is keeping the faith--that his insolence at last month’s arraignment is a matter of strategy, not denial.

For many back home in Serbia, this strategy seems to be working. A July survey by the weekly Serbian language newsmagazine NIN, reported in The Times, found that 48% of Serbs approved of Milosevic’s defiance at The Hague while only 21% were critical. A stunning 72% said the tribunal is “illegitimate,” even though most respondents, 57%, said he is responsible for war crimes.

There is a bitter twist here for internationalists who idealize the Hague Tribunal as a way to affirm leaders’ personal accountability for mass atrocities. Serbs who acknowledge Milosevic’s role in war crimes, yet warm to his insolence at The Hague and dismiss the tribunal as illegitimate, seem uninspired by the ideal of leaders’ personal accountability. This poses a large problem for current Serb leaders, including Serb Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who seek a new start for their people in the world based on the premise that Serbs didn’t do it, Slobodan did.

This premise is also the guiding principle of the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, who has spoken forcefully of the criminal law’s insistence on personal culpability and its rejection of collective guilt. Milosevic’s insolence toward the tribunal will make the difficult work of personalizing guilt even harder. By appealing to, indeed enacting, his people’s mythology of heroic defiance, Milosevic is making himself into a continuing obstacle to Serb acceptance of any sort of responsibility, individual or collective.


Del Ponte and her prosecutors can do little about this, beyond avoiding imperious legal moves that might give Milosevic new possibilities for portraying himself as victim. The main chance to dull his emotive appeal lies with Serbia’s new leaders. They can do so by starting to articulate a new, less angry civic mythology, one that portrays Serbs as active, empowered contributors to the world’s economy and culture, not as Europe’s heroic but doomed victims.