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Death of a demagogue

SLOBODAN MILOSEVIC LEFT a horrendous mark on history, gashing a murderous wound across the face of Europe right when the continent was finally overcoming half a century of ruinous division. He incited and waged successive civil wars, reintroduced concentration camps on European soil and ultimately caused the deaths of more than 225,000 people in what was once the most successful country in the old Eastern Bloc -- the former Yugoslavia.

Even in death, alone in a jail cell on Saturday, Milosevic sowed seeds of discord. With his trial for war crimes at The Hague unfinished, he robbed his victims of a final verdict.

Though an autopsy determined that he died from a heart attack, traces of a strong antibiotic in his blood -- combined with his recent claims that he was being poisoned -- offered just enough mystery for his conspiratorial supporters to claim foul play.

Milosevic came to power in 1987 by whipping up ethnic Serbs angered at their treatment by the majority Albanians in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, famously proclaiming into television cameras: “No one should dare to beat you.” After decades of feeling slighted by Tito-led unity in Yugoslavia, and centuries of nursing grievances about their Roman Catholic and Muslim neighbors, the Eastern Orthodox Serbs were ripe for a demagogue. Milosevic delivered, becoming one of the first dictators to embrace the transition from communism to ultranationalism.

Yet after 13 years of misrule, including wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, Milosevic never came close to establishing the Greater Serbia of his fantasies, instead leaving his rump country a poverty-stricken and paranoid global pariah. In 2000, his weary countrymen finally voted him out of office and began inching toward democratic rule. Milosevic was handed over to the war crimes tribunal, yet his accomplices -- Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, among others -- remain at large.

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While Milosevic was bringing ethnic cleansing to the Balkans and pummeling one of Europe’s finest capitals for the sin of being multiethnic, the rest of Europe shamefully slept.

For four long years, Western leaders wrung their hands, sent toothless “peacekeepers” and allowed Milosevic to position himself as the key to any solution rather than the very heart of the problem. When the United States finally took an aggressive lead role in confronting the dictator in 1995, Washington’s position as the world’s policeman became etched in stone.

Milosevic spent his last four years mocking the war crimes trial by serving as his own lawyer and delivering bizarre lectures about Serbian history, turning what should have been an important fact-finding process into an agonizingly protracted charade.

An unsatisfying end, but fitting. The manipulator of millions exited in front of an audience of one.


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