Radovan Karadžić must have enjoyed being nobody. After so many years under the limelight of NATO, UN, EU, CIA, and ICTY, he was probably getting a bit sweaty and fame-weary, eager to step down from the stage and hide among the dark mass of anonymous spectators. To play “the Osama bin Laden of Europe” is not an easy role, especially when those who know you best would tear you to pieces if they chanced to meet you in the street.
Looking back at it now, the death of Slobodan Miloševic seems of a piece with his life. When he reigned supreme in the Balkans, even those who claimed to know him well—and outside his immediate family circle, they were few—could never say with certainty who the “genuine” Slobodan Miloševic really was or what he stood for. Perhaps even expecting such authenticity is a Western, Judeo-Christian, or at least post-Christian-Freudian conceit, a fetishization of “essence” in the context of a man whose entire career was one of chameleonlike change that reflected the orthodoxy of the day. Baudelaire once wrote of his mistress that her eyes were deep pools of mystery behind which lay . . . nothing. My own sense is that much the same thing can be said about Miloševic. The man who went from Titoist apparatchik to reforming central banker whose views would not have seemed out of place in the Banque de France or the City of London, to Yugoslav patriot struggling to hold the Federation together, to Greater Serbian nationalist, and, finally, to Serb martyr, cannot be said to have had core beliefs—core beliefs other than in himself, that is.
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.
At the Bulgaria-Serbia border, when the train sighed to a halt between high prisonlike fences with crooked chicken wire running on top, our compartment received two official visits—first from Bulgarian customs officers and later on, a few hundred meters down the railroad, from their Serbian counterparts. Luggage was carefully probed, including the bags of the two women, but no one bothered to check mine. “What’s inside the suitcase?” a corpulent guy with beads of sweat on his upper lip demanded to know. “Personal items,” I answered, and that was that. In the ensuing silence the thump of the entry stamp fell on my passport, shattering the tension in the car. The sliding door slammed shut, and in a few more minutes the train jerked forward bearing me westward, deep into Serbian territory.