There was a time when I thought the Serbs would never get rid of Miloševic. Dictators give the impression of permanence. They convince themselves and the rest of us that they are going to be around forever. “Long live,” their enthusiastic followers keep shouting. Even the night Miloševic was arrested, the crowd of supporters gathered in front of his residence kept assuring reporters that millions who still loved him were about to converge on Belgrade any minute and that the boss would be back in charge in no time at all. I have to admit I was surprised to see him removed so easily. I forgot my history lessons. In the end, arrogance clouds every dictator’s judgment. When you are told daily that you are a god, when even your worst enemies call you an evil genius, even the most suspicious psychopath tends to get careless. Miloševic called for elections that everybody except him knew he was going to lose, and then when he did lose he tried to steal them in the most flagrant manner. It was hard for him to submit to the rule of law after years of corrupting judges and cops. He who changed the constitution and its laws anytime he felt like it was now told that it must be strictly obeyed. No wonder he was outraged. I bet he had plenty of nasty things to say in private about the Serbs, the ungrateful scum who until recently were happy to be led by the nose from one idiotic war to another. If only we could have a book of what dictators have privately said about the masses who adored them, the cult of the Great Leader in every nation might suffer a setback.
Miloševic’s conscience was clear. Even before he was handed over to court in The Hague, he admitted that he had financed the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia in their military campaigns. He said that he had no choice but to defend his own people. He did that by setting neighbor against neighbor as if murder were the only way to safeguard one’s own rights. As for the victims, he never paid them any attention. It seems the more monstrous the crimes one is responsible for, the less guilty one feels. The rest of us may toss and turn all night after we’ve wronged another human being, but history shows that if one is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, one sleeps like a baby. Miloševic, who never understood the consequences of his actions, had finally found something he could truly believe in and that was his innocence. The charges against him he dismissed with contempt. The Hague Court is the new Gestapo; the Serbs who arrested him are in the pay of NATO. Listening to him defend himself in court, I was reminded of a story a friend who worked in a mental institution told me years ago about a fellow who thought himself to be Napoleon Bonaparte. One day my friend ran into him in the recreation room and had what he thought was a brilliant idea to cure him of his illusion. “Emperor,” he asked him, “did you have motorcars when you invaded Russia?” “Of course not” replied the indignant Napoleon. Thinking he had him trapped in a logical absurdity, my friend led the madman to the window and pointed down to the parking lot full of cars. “What are those?” he asked him. “Horses,” Napoleon calmly replied and went his merry way.
As is often the case with dictators, Miloševic was a talented opportunist and a manipulator without a single original idea, good or bad. The virulent version of Serbian nationalism that wrought havoc on the innocent was not his invention but the work of others. He led a state that could not solve any problems for its citizens and that existed solely to enrich his few associates. Even when he was defending legitimate Serbian rights, he managed to squander whatever international sympathies and political advantage he had by behaving like a thug. Arrogant to the end, he died as he lived, ignoring other people’s advice. He once again outsmarted himself by not taking the pills he was prescribed for his high blood pressure. He thought he would get truly sick and be sent to Russia for medical treatment and thus never have to go back to his trial in The Hague. His death would have been comic except for all the suffering he caused. When one recalls all those killed, maimed, impoverished, and sent into exile during the years of his rule, one is at a loss for words.
The 80,000 who came out in Belgrade to pay him their last respects behaved as if they were brain-dead. Many of them were refugees from Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo who obviously made no connection between his policies and their plight. They passed over his war crimes and the scores of local political assassinations that he ordered as if they were of no consequence. What they remembered about him and what they still admired was his pigheadedness. He kept saying no to everybody even when it was against his best interests. Miloševic’s stubbornness and stupidity endeared him to his followers. Like ever other nationalist in the world, Serbs regard themselves as heaven’s chosen people, exceptionally virtuous, always innocent of any wrongdoing, and yet forever victims of injustice. Like their dead leader, they are unwilling to confront the past or to admit that he or they ever made a mistake. They like better hearing fairy tales about his noble motives and how everyone else is to be blamed for how things turned out. Even when they are confronted with the unambiguous evidence of Miloševic’s crimes, they defend themselves by arguing that he was no worse than many other world leaders, past and present, who killed plenty of human beings and never ended up in any court of law, and that ethnic cleansing has often been ignored by the international community. True enough, except that is no excuse.