Even if the bloodbath in Kosovo is averted, Slobodan Milosevic's self-seeking and destabilising quest for power has ensured that everyone will be a loser
THIS WEEKEND, the message from the White House and from Downing Street is clear: for Slobodan Milosevic, time is finally up. The planes are on the runways, and the bombing is about to start, unless he finally backs down. If this is for real - and it is still a big if - it will certainly be an enormous change from what has come before. Until now, Milosevic's power for murderous mischief-making has been enormous, but so, too, has been his power to convince Western politicians that he can play a useful role.

There has been no end to the number of Western politicians and peacemakers who over the years have been seduced by Milosevic's soothing growl. They would trot into Milosevic's office, threatening all manner of terrible things. And then they would come out again, reassured by the fact that Milosevic, too, "wants peace".

In reality, it was war, or the threat of it, that for many years kept him afloat, and continues to do so, even now. The smell of power around Milosevic excited the diplomatic dogs of peace. It was Henry Kissinger who described power as an aphrodisiac, and power is a political turn-on, too, as the example of Milosevic has amply demonstrated. World leaders sniffed eagerly around him, and always seemed fascinated by what they saw. "Nobody is saying he is a nice man, but he holds the key," said one. "Whatever you may say about him, it's crucial that we have got him on- side," said another. And: "He's as keen as we are to get a peaceful settlement in place - and if that means putting other matters to one side, so be it."

Mysteriously, Milosevic was left off the list of wanted war criminals at the Hague. But the policy-makers failed to address one basic question: if you were dealing with a lying monster, what was the point of making a deal with him at all? Milosevic has often been described as a nationalist. In reality, he is perhaps better described as a Milosevicist. There is no evidence that the fate of his fellow-countrymen has ever concerned him, except inasmuch as it had a bearing on his hold on power.

Western politicians talked repeatedly during the Bosnian war of "buried Balkan hatreds", as though the inclination to slaughter each other was somehow embedded in the local genes. This ignored the fact that millions of Yugoslavs had lived peaceably side by side for decades, pleased that history was now history. Milosevic stirred up hatred between the two sides, aided and abetted by a pliant media. Serbian television news successfully spread poison and distrust where there had been none before. One defiant Serb actor publicly declared, just after some of the worst Serb-led slaughters in late 1991: "You won't teach me to hate anyone ... The more you appeal to my patriotism, the less patriotic I feel because of you." But only a minority of Serbs were able thus to resist the siren voices. Nationalism, administered in large doses, is a powerful drug.

THE MAN who has become world-famous as the chief architect of this murderous policy was born in the Serb provincial town of Pozarevac in 1941, and joined the Communists at 18. While still in his teens, he met his wife, Mira Markovic, who has been the Elena Ceausescu of the story, a key power behind the tyrannical throne. Milosevic's own background is disturbed, to put it mildly. His uncle shot himself, as did his father, an Orthodox priest. His mother hanged herself in the living room. With such a family history, it is perhaps not surprising that many of his critics take it for granted that the Serb leader is mentally unstable. Above all, however, Milosevic seems to stand in contrast to what came in his family before. There is little sign of the suicidal - though plenty of the pathological. He cheerfully treads on the bodies of others, but himself seems determined to survive.

In the early years, he was Mr Clubbable. He made his way up through the ranks, in politics and in commerce. In 1978, he became president of a Belgrade bank. In the 1980s, he became Communist Party leader in the city of Belgrade. But his truly dramatic rise began in 1987, when he staged a palace coup to become the Serbian Communist Party leader, and stoked nationalism, previously anathema to Yugoslav Communists, to bolster his own personal power.

In those glory days, he was welcomed by adoring Serb crowds, even as other republics looked on in dismay. As Serb Communist leader, he seized on the issue of Kosovo. Many Serbs resented the relative freedoms that were permitted to the 90 per cent Albanian majority, in the province that many Serbs regarded as their (unvisited) "heartland". In 1987, Milosevic famously told Serbs in Kosovo: "Nobody shall beat you," a phrase that resonated around the country. Two years later, there were giant celebrations to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Field, when Serbs suffered a historic defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Milosevic declared: "Serbs in their history have never conquered or exploited others ... Six centuries later, again we are in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded yet." Even then, he was dropping the hint of the bloodshed that would follow - but Serbs were innocent, because Serbs always are.

This was Milosevic's proudest moment; his speech was full of lethal irony ("never conquered others ... armed battles should not be excluded"). Nowadays, he rarely shows himself in public. He only pops up on the television news, looking inscrutable as he shakes hands or sits on the familiar sofa alongside yet another visitor from abroad.

He has almost never given interviews to the foreign media - with good reason, given his natural style. When I spent an hour alone with him and a couple of bodyguards in a rare meeting in his Knightsbridge hotel suite one evening in 1992, he was friendliness itself - to start with. He gripped my hand in an iron Balkan handshake; he insisted that we should drink a late-night whisky together; he declared his love of peace for the nth time (as we spoke, Serb guns were shelling Sarajevo), and was enthusiastic about the proposal that war criminals should be prosecuted.

But it was only necessary to ask a few obvious but inconvenient questions ("If you are so keen that war criminals should be prosecuted, why is it that known war criminals can lead an untroubled life in Belgrade?") for the affable facade to crumble. At that point, Milosevic gave a long, deadly stare that would do credit to the baddie in a James Bond movie. It is fair to say that I left Milosevic's room that evening without any unrealistic expectations of being invited for a friendly follow-up meeting in Belgrade.

Crucially, however, Milosevic has never been a dictator in the conventional sense, whose own people are forced to cower before a totalitarian apparat. His is a regime of thuggery, but not a regime where the secret police have a crucial role. Milosevic's genius has been that, with the help of media manipulation on a grand scale, he has persuaded millions of Serbs to vote for him, in elections that have only partly been rigged. He moved from Communist Party leader to being Serb President, with the renamed "Socialist Party" still in charge. Then, when he could no longer be Serb president (the maximum is two terms), he became president of the rump Yugoslav federation. The job of Yugoslav president, previously irrelevant, became the heart of power. The Serb presidency, previously all-powerful, lost all its importance overnight.

HIS POWER has been shaken, but little stirred. There have been huge opposition demonstrations against Milosevic over the years - most notably in March 1991 and again in winter 1996, when it briefly seemed that his political end was nigh. But he has always bounced back. He launched the war against Croatia shortly after the Belgrade protests of 1991. The conflict in Kosovo, which many expected to be the first place to explode, finally erupted on a grand scale earlier this year.

Now, the pressure is growing for tough Western action in Kosovo, partly as a delayed compensation for the failure to save lives during three years of Bosnian slaughter. But even if the much-threatened Nato bombing raids go ahead, it is unclear whether that would bring Milosevic to heel.

The West failed to curb Milosevic at a time when such a policy could have succeeded. Now, it may prove to be too late. Milosevic's stubbornness suggests that he can no longer be blackmailed. The mutual distrust between Serbs and Albanians runs deep: unlike in Bosnia, it is hard to find a mixed marriage here. Whatever happens next seems likely to spell disaster. A bottling-out will again show Milosevic what past experience has proved - that, when push comes to shove, he can behave with near-impunity in his own backyard. Power has meant carte blanche.

Bombing raids will, however, solve few problems - again, unlike in Bosnia, where it was "merely" a matter of bringing some cowardly bullies to heel. Raids on the Serbs will bring public opinion fair and square on to Milosevic's side. In addition, clear victory for the Albanians would be almost as destabilising for the Balkans as victory for Milosevic has been in recent years. If Kosovo now gains independence, Albanians are gung-ho to help themselves to a slice of Macedonia where Albanians are in the majority. And then everything starts up all over again.

The biggest losers of all will be the Serbs themselves, not that that would necessarily bother Milosevic. He sold himself as the man who could boost Serbia's standing, and ensure that Serbia would be top dog in Yugoslavia. "Only Unity Saves the Serbs" was the brutally symbolic graffiti, based on an old Serb slogan, that appeared in destroyed villages in the former Yugoslavia. Now everything has crumbled. A chunk of Croatian territory, where Serbs lived for hundreds of years, is gone for ever. Of Yugoslavia's six republics, only Montenegro remains in Milosevic's stagnant empire. Even the Montenegrins, who have traditionally regarded themselves as more Serb than the Serbs, are giving every sign that they have had enough.

And now Kosovo. Even if Milosevic remains unpunished, his war of occupation cannot succeed indefinitely. Different nations can live side by side when both show tolerance. But a powerful army cannot keep a resentful population down by force for ever, even after apparent victory. Milosevic tried to seize everything, and may end up with nothing. If Milosevic were to follow the family tradition, then Serbia, the true Serbia, the pre-madness Serbia, might come to see itself as the winner. But it looks unlikely. For now, Milosevic is here to stay. Which means that, bombing raids or no bombing, Serbia looks set to lose.


Milosevic is too simplistically portrayed as a fascist. He's really a sophisticated guy, someone who uses undesirable political behaviour to promote reformist ideas

Western diplomat, 1988

A committed and doctrinaire Marxist. Handsome with a full head of steel gray hair ... He speaks in short, punchy sentences, using plain, populist words that excite Serbs. Serbian women find him sexy. He dresses well and smokes the same expensive cigars, Cohibas, that Fidel Castro prefers

Blaine Harden, 'Washington Post' columnist, 1990

He understands the Yugoslavian situation much better than others

Mikhail Gorbachev, 1991

He is not a nice man

Richard Holbrooke, 1995

Hopefully, we will come to terms with him. He treats us favourably and our relations with him and Yugoslavia as a whole are sound

Boris Yeltsin, 1995

Milosevic is a power pragmatist

David Owen, 1998