By Jasmin Mujanovic*
There is a spectre haunting the West, the spectre of Slobodan Milosevic.
In 1987, Milosevic, the right-hand man of then Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, was dispatched to Kosovo to ease fraying relations between the province’s Albanian and Serb communities.
A dour party apparatchik, Milosevic encountered a startling mix of resentment and anger among the Serbs in Kosovo, who felt ignored by the central authorities in Belgrade, forgotten in Yugoslavia’s poorest corner, and marginalized by the region’s ethnic Albanian majority.
When local Serb extremists orchestrated clashes with the police, falsely claiming they had been attacked by Albanian officers, the raw energy of their putsch presented Milosevic with an opportunity. As he walked among the seething crowds, fully aware the scenes were being broadcast on screens across Yugoslavia, he promised them “no one will beat you ever again”.
He never said “no one will ever beat you, the Serbs”, he never suggested he was going to liquidate the Albanians, or turn the province into a police state, or lead the whole of Yugoslavia into the maelstrom of war. He needed only to wink at the extremists and they lined up behind him. It was the whole of the Milosevic strategy – and legacy – distilled into a single moment.
Nearly 30 years later, the election of Donald J. Trump in the US, like the recent Brexit referendum in the UK, has plunged the two oldest liberal democracies in the world into unchartered waters. Millions on both sides of the Atlantic are asking: how did this happen and where are we headed? Studying the rise and reign of Slobodan Milosevic, I argue, offers some lessons and warnings.
Milosevic, of course, emerged within the context of an already authoritarian state, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), while the US and UK together have nearly half a millennium of experience with constitutional government. Yet given how unexpected the tenor and success of both Trump and Brexit was – and how quickly fear has permeated both societies as result – it is prudent to entertain, if only as an intellectual exercise, the unthinkable.
Namely, that we are all now living in the age of Milosevic.
The Milosevic playbook
Broadly speaking, Milosevic based his political programme on two principles: nationalist populism and plausible deniability. To propel himself to power, he mainstreamed extreme Serb nationalism (in a state founded on the motto of “brotherhood and unity” no less), while simultaneously claiming that he was no more than an advocate of the unheard masses.
In other words, Milosevic championed the most radical fringe views of the largest ethnic group in a complex and multi-national federation, thereby creating a popular movement with which he captured the political and security apparatus of the central state. The parallels with the embrace of white nationalism by leading sections of the Republican and Conservative parties should be obvious.
Like the US and UK today, Yugoslavia in the 1980s was in the throes of a years-long economic crisis. The inflation rate was skyrocketing, labour strife was rife, and the leadership of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (SKJ), the body that had led the country since the end of World War II, was inert and directionless. And at the margins, ethnic tensions – especially in poor areas like Kosovo – were growing. On their own, none of these phenomena threatened the Yugoslav federation. But once they were combined into a single political narrative by a capable architect, they created a firestorm.
Milosevic returned from Kosovo with a clear political strategy. First he would assemble the mob, and then he would move on his political opponents. With his rabid supporters filling the streets of Belgrade, Milosevic orchestrated the ouster of his former mentor, Ivan Stambolic. Using the same tactic, he toppled the leaders of Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosovo, and replaced them with hand-picked loyalists. Like Trump’s Republican primary march, Milosevic unravelled the existing order in pieces.
He called this strategy the “anti-bureaucratic revolution”. With each coup, the crowds grew and Milosevic promised them that this populist insurrection would transform Yugoslavia as a whole.
But as Milosevic knew, his supporters were not concerned with purging Yugoslavia of stilted communist bureaucrats; they heard in his dog-whistle speeches a vision to convert the South Slavic federation into a ‘Greater Serbia’.
The implosion of Yugoslavia
Ultimately, this attempt to transform Yugoslavia into a Serb supremacist state failed but only because the country imploded as a result. No one outside his most radical supporters could imagine life in such a union. Once they came to grips with the reality of what Milosevic intended to do – and were no longer able to stop him within the existing political parameters after his capture of the media, and large segments of the political and security apparatus – the Slovenes, Croatians, Bosnians and Macedonians all headed for the doors.
But their move only strengthened Milosevic’s hand. Here were the opponents of the anti-bureaucratic revolution exposed; those who would rather break up the country, he would say, than allow themselves to be removed from power. And if the Croatians and Bosnians left Yugoslavia, for instance, what would happen to the hundreds of thousands of Serbs who lived in those republics? Who would protect them from the spectral enemies Milosevic claimed were all around? His propaganda had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Invoking the need to reassert constitutional order, Milosevic sent the Yugoslav People’s Army into Slovenia, then Croatia, and finally Bosnia and Herzegovina. Eventually they would “withdraw”, leaving behind all their arms, munitions, and personnel under the control of the so-called ‘Republika Srpska’ authorities in Croatia and Bosnia. The tactic anticipated both Putin’s ‘little green men’, and the Kremlin’s “people’s republics” in the Donbass. And it was plausible deniability again, this time as a tactic of war.
In the territories captured by the Belgrade-backed Serb nationalist militias, thousands were expelled, exterminated, or placed into concentration camps; 100,000 were killed in the Bosnian War alone, a conflict that saw Serb forces carry out the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II. And although the genocide in Bosnia is arguably one of the most well documented campaigns of mass killing in history, Serbia’s then leadership has largely escaped punishment for their crimes, precisely because of Milosevic’s deftly-concealed hand.
A mafia state
Meanwhile, Serbia transformed into a mafia state. Milosevic rigged the elections repeatedly, crushed all opposition, breaking up anti-regime protests in 1991 and 1996, murdered journalists and critics, including his former mentor Ivan Stambolic, and mutated the economy into a glorified Ponzi scheme.
Billions disappeared from public coffers, smuggled out in duffel bags and suitcases, to be laundered in Russia and Cyprus and dispersed among Milosevic’s family and allies. By 1994, the inflation rate was at 4,139 per cent.
The media and press became a cesspool – a primitive predecessor to the contemporary “alt-right” meme culture. Glowering religious zealots, foaming ultra-nationalists, and common thugs, like Vojislav Seselj and Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, became staples of chat shows and the tabloid press.
They boasted of the divine providence that guided their killing campaigns to adoring audiences. Women disappeared from public life, replaced by pornographic pop starlets, while hundreds of thousands of young men fled the country or went underground in a desperate attempt to escape conscription.
It was fascism, not in jackboots but in tracksuits and neon.
Milosevic identified a handful of wedge issues, whipped up a mob, and then allowed them to carry him into office.
With a movement behind him, he was able to claim a kind of popular legitimacy his opponents – especially those in the wilting communist apparatus – could never replicate. They could plead for calm, like Yugoslav prime minister Ante Markovic tried to do, but the mob shouted them down. And by the time others attempted to create counter-movements, to appeal to the people’s sense of civility and decency, the discourse was already so polarised and so poisoned that they went simply unheard.
Importantly, Milosevic never enjoyed unified support. But he spoke to some genuine concerns with the economy and the political establishment and adeptly manufactured nationalist grievances to tie them all together. By the time the general public recognised that he was neither a reformer nor a clown but a demagogue, it was too late; they resisted but he directed the plot towards his own ends.
I have far more trust in the democratic regimes and citizens of the US and UK to prevent a Milosevic-style takeover of their countries. But in principle, the same factors that Milosevic exploited in Serbia exist today across the West and have already begun to be leveraged by the Trump and Brexit campaigns.
The journalist Milos Vasic attempted to explain Milosevic’s rise to Americans in 1993 like this: “You must imagine a United States with every little TV station everywhere taking exactly the same editorial line – a line dictated by David Duke. You too would have war in five years.”
Today, David Duke is back and so is Milosevic.
*Dr. Jasmin Mujanovic is a political scientist specializing in the politics of south-eastern Europe, and the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratization more broadly. His first book, “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans”, will be available from Hurst Publishers in 2017.
The opinions expressed in the comments section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
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