The Myth That Is Milosevic


In any other society, the remark would be chilling and weird: "I committed genocide against the beer," a young man at a Belgrade bar said casually, six or seven empty beer bottles on the table in front of him.

For his friends, there was nothing strange about the slightly joking boast. In colloquial Serbian today, if you polish off a huge plate of pasta, down more beers than usual or talk about a big haul of fish from a river, you might speak of "genocide" against the object in question.

"Genocide" became a household word here during the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, disseminated by his tightly controlled mass media. Outsiders might find that amazing: Wouldn't genocide be one subject Milosevic would avoid?

But the word wasn't applied to the deaths of tens of thousands of non-Serbs in the 1990s. It referred instead to what happened to Serbs during World War II--and what could happen again, went the dire predictions.

For Milosevic and his dwindling band of die-hard supporters, the world has always been a through-the-looking-glass image of how it seems to most Americans. How, we wonder, can anyone still support this man who now faces trial on war crimes charges, including torture and murder?

To understand that--and why some Serbs who hated his regime still applauded his defiance this month when he was brought before the U.N. tribunal in The Hague--one needs to understand the Serbs themselves.

Generations of Serbs have grown up hearing operatic tales of their people's past, a tapestry of history and legend that celebrates with defiant pride a sense of their own victimhood. Serbs have indeed suffered great oppression over the centuries, but this powerful mix of myth and history creates an overblown sense of suffering, which plays out in a feeling of "them against us."

Milosevic's message about genocide was driven home with particular intensity around 1990, before any of the wars leading to Yugoslavia's breakup began.

"Don't let it happen again," his tightly controlled mass media warned then and later, meaning that Serbs must defend themselves against implacable enemies: Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovo Albanians and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

For his supporters--which in the late 1980s and early '90s meant most Serbs--Milosevic was never the aggressor, always the defender.

And for his true believers, he was more. His role echoed that of Lazar, a medieval Serbian prince who is portrayed as a Christlike figure in the legend that grew up around the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

While no Milosevic follower is likely to put it quite so crudely, the comparison of Lazar to Christ and of Milosevic to Lazar leads at least to the subconscious image that Jesus is now being crucified in The Hague.

Medieval Serbia's defeat by Turkish forces in the Battle of Kosovo is "the most important day in our history, because nobody surrendered, and because the flower of Serbian nobility was there, and we lost almost everything there, and because they were brave and they were fighting until the last one," said Vesna Brzev-Curcic, a psychologist. "This is the victory."

When Milosevic, thundering with anger, declared in English this month to a Hague tribunal judge, "I consider this tribunal false tribunal and indictments false indictments," he wasn't just following a defense strategy based on nonrecognition of jurisdiction. He was also playing to some of the deepest strains in the Serbian soul, taking the role of the heroic victim who won't yield even in the face of defeat.

"Some people who were very against him, after this [court appearance] said: 'Bravo. This is how Serbs ought to behave,' " said Brzev-Curcic, who joined anti-Milosevic protests during the 1990s.

Support for Ex-Leader's Defiance at Tribunal

A survey conducted by the weekly Serbian-language newsmagazine NIN after Milosevic's appearance in The Hague found that 72% of respondents considered the tribunal "illegitimate," while 28% viewed it as "legitimate." As for Milosevic's defiant attitude toward the court, 48% approved and 21% were critical.

This was the case even though public opinion had shifted against Milosevic to the point where 57% said he bears responsibility for war crimes.

Milosevic repeatedly used historical myths and half-truths in his rise to power, and they account for much of the support he still commands from true believers.

Important events that were embellished or poorly understood include not just the Battle of Kosovo but also the sufferings of the Serbian people under the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the slaughter of Serbs by the pro-Nazi government of Croatia during World War II, and mistreatment of Serbs by ethnic Albanians during periods when the latter group was dominant in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

At the same time, Milosevic was seen as a defender of socialist values such as job security in state enterprises, universal health care and subsidized living costs, which boosted his image as a benevolent father figure.

"He promised a healthy, wealthy and free country," Brzev-Curcic said. "In this nation, it is very common to have one leader who is actually a figure of a mighty father, the savior and protector. I think some of them are prepared to sacrifice their lives for him, the true lovers of Milosevic. . . . It is very hard to give up somebody or something that you adored."

Most of Milosevic's strongest supporters today are people who think of themselves as good, who believe he did good and who are mystified at why things have turned out so badly--although they are pretty sure that it has a lot to do with what they see as America's hunger for power.

His supporters see NATO's 11-week bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999 as a naked power grab and a war crime, a view shared not just by die-hards. Most Serbs today--including Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica--still see NATO's action as aggression that was illegal under international law. And the bombing, of course, was "genocide."

The alliance said the bombing was necessary to force Milosevic to end his repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Those here who buy that argument remain a tiny minority, even among those who despise Milosevic for what he did to this country.

Serbs Baffled by 'Animosity' of U.S.

Radmila Petrovic, 52, simply can't see why it is that, as she puts it, Americans hate the Serbs so much. This animosity, as reflected in the NATO bombing and the U.S. demand that Milosevic face trial in The Hague, is even more baffling, she says, because until Communist Yugoslavia started to break up, the Serbian people admired the United States and wanted to be part of the West.

"We don't understand why Americans want to have our Serbian soul, which is so big," she said. "They could have received us served on a plate. We were all pro-American."

Part of the problem is that "the United States has had bad presidents, or people ruling from the shadows," said Petrovic, who showed up at one of the many pro-Milosevic rallies of recent weeks. "They haven't moved very far from the cowboy days. Somebody stronger will come someday. The people of the world will unite. We'll live to see that. We'll survive."

Milosevic offered simple solutions to complex problems, always based on the certainty of Serbian goodness. When things went wrong, an outside enemy--with hugely exaggerated villainy--was to blame: the almost genetically evil Croats who committed genocide during World War II, the cruel Bosnian Muslims whose very existence as a separate group stems from their ancestors' collaboration with the hated Turkish occupiers, the Kosovo Albanians who plot to tear away Serbia's Holy Land and make it their own, the expansionist NATO powers who want to cover up their crimes by fingering as a war criminal the man who has done more than anyone else to resist their evil designs.

Milosevic's foes sometimes made the mistake of dismissing his half-truths as completely false, while his supporters knew there was at least some validity to them. In his believers' eyes, that often turned his critics--be they Western governments, foreign media or domestic political opponents--into liars.

Fascist Croats did kill Serbs during World War II. The ancestors of Bosnian Muslims may well have benefited materially from their conversion to Islam during Turkish rule. Kosovo really is the Serbian Holy Land, and the ethnic Albanians who live there do want to make it theirs. NATO is indeed expanding, and if Milosevic is found guilty of war crimes, that could well benefit Western governments by strengthening their argument that the 1999 bombing was justified by humanitarian concerns.

These facts could in no way justify any of Milosevic's brutal actions against Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians, but he and his propaganda machine managed to present them as a kind of call to arms.

To Be a Serb Means to Never Forget

In the Balkans, old grudges are not easily forgotten. The Serbian language has a word, zlopamtilo, used to describe a common feature of life here. Its roots are "evil" and "to memorize." What it means is that people will never forget when they have been wronged.

"There is only a small minority of those who really ever forget or forgive," Vladimir Dvornikovic, one of Yugoslavia's greatest anthropologists, wrote in his landmark 1939 study of the character and collective psychology of the peoples of Yugoslavia. "Even an insult, either real or imagined, is remembered until death."

It also was never easy to speak out against Milosevic, especially in the early years, when he was extremely popular, or during the NATO bombing.

"Whenever you said something against Milosevic and his politics, you were labeled as a traitor, as somebody against your own country, your own people," psychologist Brzev-Curcic said. "It is very hard to live with that label. Even for me, it was very hard to live with the fact that I was seen as a traitor."

Many of those who have turned against Milosevic blame him mainly for ruining the country and losing the wars, without seeing anything inherently wrong in what he tried to do.

Slavica Spahic, 22, is a Bosnian Serb law student in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital. In the Bosnian war, she said, others "called us from the beginning 'aggressors,' but we were never the aggressors."

She particularly blamed Milosevic for agreeing in the 1995 Dayton peace accords to a reduction of the territory controlled by Bosnian Serbs. "Before Dayton, Serbs had 70% of the territory [of all Bosnia-Herzegovina] and after Dayton only 49%," she said.

Vladimir Adamovic, a Serbian psychiatrist who has studied the characteristics of leaders and followers, cited two modes of "psychological defense" that have enabled many Serbs to go on believing that Milosevic and his policies were morally right.

"The first line of defense is denial," Adamovic said. "That means that if reality offers information that does not fit in the idealized picture that Serbs have about themselves, then they deny it . . . like a small child when he faces a picture or an animal that frightens him, and he puts his hands on his eyes and refuses to see it."

The second mechanism is "projection," Adamovic said. "Everything that they personally, subconsciously feel in themselves-- aggressiveness, xenophobia, animosity--they project that to the environment: 'I'm not guilty. My neighbor is guilty. He is persecuting me. I have to defend myself.' "

In recent weeks, the new democratic authorities in Belgrade have been exhuming mass graves containing the bodies of ethnic Albanians that were trucked out of Kosovo during NATO's bombing campaign. Many Serbs accept the graves as fairly obvious evidence of an attempt to hide war crimes, but other Serbs think no such thing.

Obrad Savic, a vocal Milosevic critic who edits the Belgrade Circle Journal, a key theoretical publication for pro-democracy intellectuals, said that if the graves had been discovered a few years ago while his mother was alive, you could have taken her "by the hand and come to the grave," and she would have denied it.

His mother was steeped in Serbian family tradition and in beliefs of the Orthodox Church, and "she believed that Jesus Christ is a Serb," Savic said jokingly.

The "most important" reason some people still look up to Milosevic relates to their own sense of insecurity in the transition from the socialist and rural past to an era of globalization, with all of its threats to traditional identity, Savic said. More than any other institution, NATO is seen as the mechanism by which the power of international capital and the forces of globalization are reaching into the Balkans, he said.

Still Holding Sway Over the Poor and Elderly

Many in this region, particularly educated young people, would like nothing more than to be fully integrated into the West, but the pull into global markets also produces losers, and these are the people who have been most loyal to Milosevic. They tend to be older, poorer and more rural or to have roots in the defunct Communist Party.

Milosevic still has a hold on these people, Savic said, because he can say: "I'm the first guy in the world who said to NATO, 'No,' in spite of all consequences. So I'm a hero. I'm the first guy in Europe who said to the globalization process, 'Not here, sorry.' "

Brzev-Curcic cited another concept, with its roots in Orthodox Christianity, to explain the psychology of many Serbs: "Trpen spasen." This phrase, she said, can help explain things ranging from why the Battle of Kosovo legend is so powerful to why Milosevic assumed the role of heroic victim in The Hague. Its meaning is, "The more you suffer, the more you will be saved."


Times special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic contributed to this report.

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