Slobodan Milosevic: A Biography

From mediocrity to monster

By Tom Gross
May 16, 2004

A former bank manager


How did a former bank manager, who enjoyed shopping trips to New York, end up as the first head of state to be charged with genocide?

This is a book review for the New York Post of “Milosevic: A Biography,” by Adam Lebor (Yale University Press). LeBor’s is the first full-length authoritative biography of Slobodan Milosevic, currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Milosevic was a mediocre man turned monster, whose policies instigated four wars, who for a decade skillfully exploited the media to whip up nationalist frenzy and con western leaders, and under whose rule campaigns of ethnic cleansing destroyed a once sophisticated multi-ethnic country.

-- Tom Gross


BRITISH journalist Adam LeBor has produced a highly readable new biography of Slobodan Milosevic, the man associated more than any other with the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and its descent into a series of wars and ethnic massacres of a kind not seen in Europe since Hitler (though they were not of course on the same scale).

We learn how Milosevic, a mediocre albeit ambitious provincial Communist Party official, became a ruthless warmonger, who launched and lost four wars in the space of a few years. A former bank manager, who enjoyed shopping trips to New York, he ended up as the first head of state to be charged with genocide.

A little over a decade ago he entertained a succession of British and French dignitaries at scenic Yugoslav hunting lodges, and at the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace talks, despite his role in ethnic atrocities that had already occurred, he was greeted as a sympathetic “ally” and a “peacemaker.” Today his home is a 9-foot by 15-foot cell in an old Nazi jail near The Hague, where he is on trial for genocide in Bosnia and war crimes in Croatia and Kosovo.


The Sarajevo market massacre, which killed
66 people, caused revulsion worldwide

While this isn’t an authorized work, Milosevic agreed to let his formidable wife Mira speak to LeBor. He and Mira, who is regarded by many as the power behind the throne, have been exceptionally close ever since they met and fell in love in high school, where they were known to classmates as “Romeo and Juliet II.” Because of his access to Mira, and to other important witnesses, LeBor has been able to produce a rewarding portrait, which has much to offer all interested readers.

LeBor gives a revealing account of Milosevic’s childhood, which was darkened by his father’s suicide. He describes his early career in banking, his rise to the top in politics, his success in whipping up Serbian nationalism over the Kosovo issue in the late 1980s and his use of criminal networks in the Balkans to consolidate his grasp on power.

He chronicles his courting of Western diplomats and politicians, his reliance on violent paramilitary gangs (some recruited from the raucous supporters of Partisan Belgrade soccer team) and the whole course of the career that led to his present internment. We also learn that throughout this bloodstained period Milosevic would relax by singing French songs at the piano, and that he remained a warm and caring family man. (LeBor also tells us that today, in jail, Milosevic enjoys reading Ernest Hemingway and John Updike, and listening to Celina Dion and Frank Sinatra on a portable CD player. “My Way” is one of his favorites.)


Another day in court

Though not in any way minimizing his culpability, LeBor suggests that Milosevic may have been assigned too large a share of blame by the world at large for the wars that ravaged Yugoslavia.

Nationalist leaders from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia bear a heavy responsibility, too. Chief among them was the Croat leader, the late Franjo Tudjman, a former Communist general who ended up a virtual fascist. (He was an anti-Semite, courting Croatian voters by exclaiming, “Thank God my wife is not a Jew,” and he allowed the use of the World War II Croat fascist flag, which for Serbs has the same resonance as the swastika has for Jews.)

Indeed, the biggest single act of ethnic cleansing was not carried out by Serbs, but directed against them, when Tudjman’s army drove the centuries-old Krajina Serb communities from their homes in 1995. But for a full explanation of those events we will have to wait for an account of Tudjman’s life and motivations, which is as insightful as LeBor is about Milosevic.

(Tom Gross is a journalist specializing in international politics.)