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The Debris of a Madman

October 08, 2000|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition."

NEW YORK — Slobodan Milosevic, the most disastrous leader in the long history of the Serbian people, has fallen from power. What finally brought him down wasn't his enemies abroad; it was the courage and the outraged patriotism of the Serbs.

For nine years, since the Yugoslav armed forces tried and failed to prevent the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from Josep Broz Tito's Yugoslav federation, Milosevic led the Serbs through a series of bloody disasters. Serb attacks on Vukovar, a city on the Croat-Serb border, became the first symbol of the futile ferocity and bloodshed into which Milosevic would repeatedly plunge his people and the region. It set the pattern for what was to come: Savage attacks and slaughter turned world public opinion decisively against the Serbs, as the hoarded treasure and might of the Serbian people were thrown into ill-considered military adventure. In Croatia, in Bosnia and finally in Kosovo, Milosevic's henchmen raped, murdered and pillaged their way into one disaster after another.

The Serbia he leaves to his successors is a shrunken, impoverished shadow of the Greater Serbia he promised. Lost are the lands of the Krajina, Serb settlements in Croatia, settled centuries ago by Serbs determined to fight on against Ottoman penetration of the Balkans. More than 100,000 Serbs were driven out--ethnically cleansed--while the United States and the rest of world turned a blind eye. Gone, too, is the city of Sarajevo, where Serbian national hero Gavrilo Princip started World War I and launched a train of events that made Serbs masters of the new Yugoslav state and Yugoslavia one of the most important countries in Europe. Gone in reality, if not in name, is Kosovo, fabled homeland of the Serbian national spirit. Milosevic's career began when he swore to the Serbs to keep Kosovo an integral part of the Serbian state; as it ends, Kosovo's Serbian inhabitants are embittered refugees, and Kosovar Albanians control the province's future.

But territory is only part of what Milosevic's Serbia has lost. Tens of thousands of Serbs have died in Milosevic's lost wars. Eleven years of economic growth has been lost; Serbia was once one of the richest, most developed of Balkan lands. Now its citizens face years, even decades, of poverty as they struggle to recover.

More than that, Serbia has lost what was once an enviable place in the world. Not long ago, Serbs were one of Europe's favorite peoples. Celebrated for their courageous resistance to the Ottomans, admired for their culture of generosity and hospitality, Serbs were the Balkan citizens whom Westerners, especially the British, French and Americans, most admired. Fighting with unbelievable tenacity against overwhelming odds in both the world wars, Serbs won the respect and the gratitude of their wartime allies. Yugoslavia's courageous stand against Josef Stalin reinforced the West's admiration for the Serbs and potentially offered Serbs a unique role in Europe's post-communist transition.

But Serbs, like all people, have their share of hatreds, follies, fantasies and psychoses. It was Serbia's misfortune, and for decades to come it will be Serbia's sorrow, that Milosevic emerged from the decay of Yugoslav communism to harness Serb bitterness to a perverted ambition. Finding ready allies in the human ruin and wreckage left in communism's ugly wake, and gifted with the demagogue's unhappy ability to bring out the worst impulses of ordinary people, Milosevic spoke the rhetoric of Serb nationalism, but his goals were always self-centered. Like Adolf Hitler, Emperor Hirohito and Stalin, Milosevic would gladly sacrifice the lives and the hopes of his deluded followers to extend his own power for one more day.

Out of it all, Milosevic has won an odd kind of victory. None of the outsiders he mocked and manipulated managed to take him out. Over and over again, he outmaneuvered the West. He inflicted one humiliation after another on the United Nations, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His resistance in the Kosovo war forced the United States and NATO to accept the compromise peace they once scorned and drove such a deep wedge into the alliance that NATO may never again engage in out-of-area warfare without a Security Council mandate.

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