Slobodan Milosevic’s death on March 11 brings back memories of a sordid era in modern European history. Less than fifty years after World War II, Milosevic made mass murder and serial wars a feature of the European landscape again.
I’m resisting the impulse to oversimplify here. The Balkans conflicts in the 1990s were motivated by a complex web of factors, and Milosevic wasn’t the only bad guy. Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman was a thug in his own right who cleansed the region of Krajina of its Serbian population. Even the Bosnian leadership, with all its professed commitment to multiculturalism, had elements that were sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism. And all three sides committed war crimes. But, still, Milosevic stands alone in the enormity and the brutality of his criminal acts.
Once he realized that the communist era was coming to an end in Yugoslavia, Milosevic cynically recast himself as a hypernationalist, completely willing to stoke up chauvinist passions for self-serving purposes. When the other constituent republics of Yugoslavia refused to abide by Serb domination of the country’s political system and decided to go their own way in 1991, Milosevic launched one war after the other to legitimize his rule and hold the country together by force.
The first republic in his crosshairs was Slovenia. He gave up rather quickly there, since Serbia’s lack of a common border made the waging of a war quite difficult, and Slovenia managed to escape without much damage.
The next target for Milosevic was Croatia. The devastation he caused there was appalling, with the Serb shelling of Dubrovnik and Vukovar especially heart-rending.
But it was Bosnia that Milosevic reserved the worst for. Detention camps, ethnic cleansing, mass killings, and large-scale destruction entered the European scene for the first time since 1945. The siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacres (where Milosevic’s proxies killed thousands of Bosnians) attained particular infamy.
In the end, Milosevic overreached. He attempted to duplicate the same strategy in Kosovo in 1999 when faced with an armed opposition, the Kosovo Liberation Army, that grew out of the failure of the West to back a nonviolent movement in the region. (See my piece on the “Gandhi of the Balkans.”) NATO, led by the United States and Britain, initiated a bombing campaign that led to Milosevic becoming severely weakened. When he tried to steal elections the following year, a grassroots movement ousted him. The new government handed him over to the International Criminal Tribunal in 2001, and he was being tried for various crimes when he died under mysterious circumstances on March 11.
Why rehash this history now? For two reasons.
First, the inhumanity that Milosevic exhibited was unparalleled in modern European history. Just a short drive from Vienna and Budapest, at places such as a former site of the Winter Olympics, Milosevic routinely perpetrated ethnic cleansing and mass murder barely a decade ago.
Second, all this is, sadly, not even history. Many of the main perpetrators of the crimes, such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Serb General Ratko Mladic, are still in hiding in the area, with NATO forces being unwilling or unable to find them.
The region as a whole is still suffering the aftereffects of Milosevic’s serial warfare. Bosnia is barely together as a nation ten years after the Dayton agreements divided it into a Serb-dominated area and a Muslim-Croat federation in the wake of Milosevic’s aggression.
Kosovo is stuck in limbo legal status and has been racked by bouts of ethnic strife. Croatia is struggling to come out of the shell of its militarized past. To Serbia itself, Milosevic bequeathed a mix of ultranationalist politics and gangster-style rule that the country is even today having to contend with. And, of course, Milosevic’s victims throughout the Balkans still lead haunted lives—if they were lucky enough not to be killed.
Let’s hope that Milosevic’s toxic legacy doesn’t outlast him by much.