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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

The Myth That Is Milosevic

Even after defeat, the former Yugoslav president's supporters see him as a hero who epitomizes the nation's cult of victimhood.

July 31, 2001|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — In any other society, the remark would be chilling and weird: "I committed genocide against the beer," a young man at a Belgrade bar said casually, six or seven empty beer bottles on the table in front of him.

For his friends, there was nothing strange about the slightly joking boast. In colloquial Serbian today, if you polish off a huge plate of pasta, down more beers than usual or talk about a big haul of fish from a river, you might speak of "genocide" against the object in question.

"Genocide" became a household word here during the rule of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, disseminated by his tightly controlled mass media. Outsiders might find that amazing: Wouldn't genocide be one subject Milosevic would avoid?

But the word wasn't applied to the deaths of tens of thousands of non-Serbs in the 1990s. It referred instead to what happened to Serbs during World War II--and what could happen again, went the dire predictions.

For Milosevic and his dwindling band of die-hard supporters, the world has always been a through-the-looking-glass image of how it seems to most Americans. How, we wonder, can anyone still support this man who now faces trial on war crimes charges, including torture and murder?

To understand that--and why some Serbs who hated his regime still applauded his defiance this month when he was brought before the U.N. tribunal in The Hague--one needs to understand the Serbs themselves.

Generations of Serbs have grown up hearing operatic tales of their people's past, a tapestry of history and legend that celebrates with defiant pride a sense of their own victimhood. Serbs have indeed suffered great oppression over the centuries, but this powerful mix of myth and history creates an overblown sense of suffering, which plays out in a feeling of "them against us."

Milosevic's message about genocide was driven home with particular intensity around 1990, before any of the wars leading to Yugoslavia's breakup began.

"Don't let it happen again," his tightly controlled mass media warned then and later, meaning that Serbs must defend themselves against implacable enemies: Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Kosovo Albanians and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

For his supporters--which in the late 1980s and early '90s meant most Serbs--Milosevic was never the aggressor, always the defender.

And for his true believers, he was more. His role echoed that of Lazar, a medieval Serbian prince who is portrayed as a Christlike figure in the legend that grew up around the 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

While no Milosevic follower is likely to put it quite so crudely, the comparison of Lazar to Christ and of Milosevic to Lazar leads at least to the subconscious image that Jesus is now being crucified in The Hague.

Medieval Serbia's defeat by Turkish forces in the Battle of Kosovo is "the most important day in our history, because nobody surrendered, and because the flower of Serbian nobility was there, and we lost almost everything there, and because they were brave and they were fighting until the last one," said Vesna Brzev-Curcic, a psychologist. "This is the victory."

When Milosevic, thundering with anger, declared in English this month to a Hague tribunal judge, "I consider this tribunal false tribunal and indictments false indictments," he wasn't just following a defense strategy based on nonrecognition of jurisdiction. He was also playing to some of the deepest strains in the Serbian soul, taking the role of the heroic victim who won't yield even in the face of defeat.

"Some people who were very against him, after this [court appearance] said: 'Bravo. This is how Serbs ought to behave,' " said Brzev-Curcic, who joined anti-Milosevic protests during the 1990s.

Support for Ex-Leader's Defiance at Tribunal

A survey conducted by the weekly Serbian-language newsmagazine NIN after Milosevic's appearance in The Hague found that 72% of respondents considered the tribunal "illegitimate," while 28% viewed it as "legitimate." As for Milosevic's defiant attitude toward the court, 48% approved and 21% were critical.

This was the case even though public opinion had shifted against Milosevic to the point where 57% said he bears responsibility for war crimes.

Milosevic repeatedly used historical myths and half-truths in his rise to power, and they account for much of the support he still commands from true believers.

Important events that were embellished or poorly understood include not just the Battle of Kosovo but also the sufferings of the Serbian people under the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the slaughter of Serbs by the pro-Nazi government of Croatia during World War II, and mistreatment of Serbs by ethnic Albanians during periods when the latter group was dominant in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

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