The Saturday Essay: A violent interloper on the stage of European history

Milosevic knows that by evoking his nation's great moments he can prod his people into supporting him

SOME OF the bombs hit Belgrade Zoo: "Out of the smoke and fire came the maddened animals released from their shattered cages. A stricken stork hobbled past the main hotel which was a mass of flames. A bear, dazed and uncomprehending, shuffled through the inferno with slow and awkward gait down towards the Danube. He was not the only bear who did not understand."

That was two bombings ago. In 1944 the Allies bombed Belgrade, but before that, on 6 April 1941, it had been the turn of the Nazis. Under great pressure, the Yugoslav government had signed up to the Axis pact but this prompted a coup, led by Serbian officers, which in turn led to Hitler's "Operation Punishment". Belgrade was bombed and Yugoslavia occupied.

It was Winston Churchill who wrote about the zoo. In the wake of the officers' coup, but before the Nazi bombing, he told the House of Commons: "Early this morning the Yugoslav nation found its soul. A revolution has taken place in Belgrade. This patriotic movement arises from the wrath of a valiant and warlike race at the betrayal of their country by the weakness of their rulers and the foul intrigues of the Axis powers."

We tend to forget just how long - and complicated - is our involvement with the Serbs. On his way to the Commons to make his statement on Thursday, Robin Cook might have paused for thought by the great mural of Britannia Pacificatrix at the top of the Foreign Office's Great Staircase. Painted during the First World War, Britannia stands four-square alongside her allies, including, of course, Serbia.

While Britannia grasps the hand of America with one hand, with the other, according to the artist's notes, she "encloses within the folds of her royal mantle" those whom she hastened to protect in 1914. Here is Belgium, a "Psyche-like figure of pure girlhood", alongside Serbia, who in turn "comforts little Montenegro".

These were the years of the legend of "gallant little Serbia". The country had withstood pressure from the regional superpower, Austria-Hungary, to allow its inspectors in to conduct an investigation into the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Although all the other points of the Austro- Hungarian ultimatum were accepted, to agree to foreigners on Serbian soil stuck in the government's gullet. Its refusal gave Vienna the pretext she wanted to declare war.

We all know what happened next. However, it is a measure of Serbia's roller- coaster fortunes that, in 1963, the historian Edward Crankshaw saw fit to remind his readers that in the decade before 1914: "Serbia had been regarded as a thorough-going nuisance, a nest of violent barbarians whose megalomania would sooner or later meet the punishment it deserved. There had been several occasions when the rest of Europe fully expected to see Austria lash out and wipe Serbia off the map."

Of course, Serbia being a small country about which we know little, we need reminding of its past violent intrusions onto the stage of European history. But there is something else afoot here. We also need to understand that Slobodan Milosevic is playing the history game with his own people, a grotesque game that is leading them to disaster.

On Thursday, Belgrade radio broadcast the following: "Last night, like Hitler's Luftwaffe 57 years 11 months and two weeks ago, Nato, under the command of the United States, started a criminal aggression against our country."

Nato planes are now in action over Serbia because Western officials gambled and lost. The gamble was this. It was assumed that, in negotiations over the future of Kosovo, Milosevic would bargain hard and push up the price of peace and, in the end, would agree to a deal and to some sort of foreign force implementing it on the ground. To be fair, the vast majority of Serbs also thought that their leader would eventually cave in. For some unknown reason, he didn't.

In the past we have assumed that Milosevic was interested in only one thing: power. We have written that he was not a nationalist, not an ideologue, but a cynical opportunist using whatever means were useful at the time to gain, consolidate and keep power. That analysis was not wrong, but, just as the bombing of Serbia by Nato is a defining moment in the history of the organisation, we have to wonder whether for Milosevic, too, something fundamental has now happened.

Until last week, a future biography of Milosevic could only have concluded that he had led the Serbs to rack and ruin. He destroyed the old Yugoslavia; he failed to create a Greater Serbia; he seemed sure to lose Kosovo; more than half a million Serbs are refugees; and his country is an economically ruined pariah state.

By daring the West to bomb him, Milosevic has done far more than simply throw down the gauntlet to the world's most powerful military alliance. He is trying to change the end of that biography. The Serb officers who overthrew the government in March 1941 are remembered as honoured heroes. The fact that the Serbian government in 1914 defied Austria-Hungary is remembered with pride. If Milosevic's gamble works, maybe his past disasters will be forgotten and he too will have his name writ large in the pantheon of Serbian and Yugoslav heroes.

Of course, any calculation of how Milosevic wants glory now, as well as power, would be incomplete if we did not consider the seminal moment in the life of all Yugoslavs, the moment that changed the course (again) of their modern history. In 1948, Tito took his own great gamble: the break with Stalin, the USSR and the whole Communist bloc. And he got away with it.

Milosevic's wife, Mira Markovic, an academic and politician in her own right, is often said to be the Lady Macbeth of Serbian politics. When they were young, Mira would boast that one day her "Slobo" would be a far greater leader of Yugoslavia than Tito ever was. This is his last chance.

In 1948, the press reported that Tito had issued a "decisive no" to Stalin. We can hardly be surprised, then, that the press is once again rolling out the very same catch-phrase, Milosevic's "decisive no" to the West, to the new dictators of the new world order.

Whether Milosevic will get away with this, whether his gamble will work, I somehow doubt. In the short term, though, it will have an effect. My friend Goran wrote me an e-mail from Belgrade yesterday. He loathes Milosevic, and would happily see Serbia shot of Kosovo, yet he said that when he heard on the news that a German Nato jet had been shot down, "unexpectedly I felt a kind of joy".

Goran continued: "Furthermore, at this moment, I would like more planes to be shot down, preferably American. Is that a normal wish for a Western- oriented, free- market-influenced professor of economics who adores capitalism, freedom, democracy, the rule of law? I don't know the answer but this is how I feel right now."

Goran adds that he is staying at his mother-in-law's house. First, because I told him that since his flat is next door to the Ministry of Defence he should stay away in case a cruise missile takes his block out by mistake, and secondly because his mother-in-law "experienced the Anglo-American bombings of Belgrade in 1944 (her brother was killed), so she is rather anxious about current developments".

Consciously then, Milosevic is writing his own history, seeking immortality by playing with the lives of his people, by playing on living memory, by playing on all the things that they have been taught are the sacred moments of their history.

After the coup of 1941, Patriarch Gavrilo broadcast to the nation that his people had chosen: "the heavenly kingdom - the kingdom of truth, justice, national strength, and freedom. That eternal idea is carried in the hearts of all Serbs, preserved in the shrines of our churches, and written on our banners".

All Serbs understand this language. Whether such a speech was delivered in 1941, 1991 or today makes little difference. For the formulation of the words themselves makes reference to that great guiding myth of Serbian history, the fateful choice of Tsar Lazar in 1389, when he chose to lose in battle with the Turks rather than to submit and become an Ottoman vassal.

Afterwards, Patriarch Danilo recorded what he claimed was a speech given by Lazar on the eve of the battle in which he was to die. "If the sword, if wounds, or if the darkness of death comes to us, we accept them sweetly for Christ and for the godliness of our homeland. It is better to die in battle than to live in shame."

Of course, the burning of Albanian villages, massacres and "ethnic cleansing" have nothing to do with the "godliness" of Serbia, but, evoking a purity of spirit has everything to do with Milosevic, history and power. It was in Kosovo, on 24 April 1987, that he sealed his own fate, beginning his successful transformation from Communist apparatchik to Serbian idol.

In one of the most famous speeches of his career he told the Serbian minority of the province, which was then complaining of persecution at the hands of the Albanians, who were then in charge of Kosovo, that they should not despair. "It has never been a characteristic of the Serbian and Montenegrin people to retreat in the face of obstacles, to demobilise when they should fight. You should stay here, both for your ancestors and for your descendants. Otherwise you would shame your ancestors and disappoint your descendants."

The Krajina Serbs of Croatia thought that Milosevic had urged them to do the same. He had, after all, armed them and encouraged them to rise up in rebellion against the Croats. But when, in the summer of 1995, he no longer had the means or the will to defend them, the Croats swept out more than 200,000 of them in three days. Milosevic said nothing. The uses of history can be selective.

Unless Milosevic now decides to "cleanse" Kosovo, just as the Croats "cleansed" the Krajina Serbs - a real option that he must now be pondering - it seems inevitable that sooner or later Serbia will lose Kosovo. Such demographic changes have taken place there over the last five centuries that the parting of the ways between Serb and Albanian can only be a matter of time.

Still, Milosevic, even if he does lose Kosovo, even if Serbia is left in ruins, may now believe that he has secured his name for his descendants. He fought rather than opting "to live in shame". Of course, there is another possibility, another grim historical analogy, the uses of which Milosevic may also be pondering.

After the Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Bulgarians occupied Serbia in 1915, the whole Serbian government and army fled, some across Kosovo field, where the fatal battle had taken place in 1389, some on different routes. In the end, they all trekked across Albania to the Adriatic coast where they were rescued by the British and French. They were taken to Corfu, and then on to Salonika where they fought on the front until the end of the war.

In 1915 the Serbs had powerful allies who came to their rescue. Today Serbia's only friends are Russia and China, and even in moments of deranged historical fantasising Milosevic cannot believe that he will one day relive this great retreat and return - or, for that matter, Tito's wartime treks. But Milosevic knows that by evoking these great moments he can prod his people into supporting him, into rallying round the leader. His appeals may speak of patriotism but in fact they are little more than props to shore up his power.

The last chapter of that biography will not record Milosevic as a true Serbian hero. It will say that he was the Serbian Nero who fiddled while his country burned.

The author's `The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia' is available in paperback (Yale University Press)

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