The invisible 'saviour'

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The Independent Online

He was everywhere but you never saw him. In six years in Serbia I glimpsed the President three times. At a rally in Kosovo Polje, in 1989, after abolishing Kosovo's autonomy, he strode past, the familiar chin jutting, only a few yards away. He was almost hidden by the phalanx of huge bodyguards, all wearing dark sunglasses.

He was everywhere but you never saw him. In six years in Serbia I glimpsed the President three times. At a rally in Kosovo Polje, in 1989, after abolishing Kosovo's autonomy, he strode past, the familiar chin jutting, only a few yards away. He was almost hidden by the phalanx of huge bodyguards, all wearing dark sunglasses.

On the main Belgrade-Nis highway his cavalcade once roared past at about 110mph, sending other drivers hurtling into the verges as the column of black limousines, fronted and followed by outriders with blaring sirens, hurtled past.

My last sighting was at an election rally in the northern capital of Novi Sad. As Milosevic descended from the dais after his speech, a BBC reporter ran through a gap in the normally solid line of bodyguards and shouted: "Mr President?" A huge Terminator- style guard knocked him out of the great man's path like a skittle. No one door-stepped President Milosevic.

But he was there all right, just like Big Brother. His jowled, frowning face and domed forehead, several feet high, was plastered on the front of inter-city buses. It loomed down at the ticket office of Belgrade railway station, beside a slogan that read, "Free nation! Death to fascism!"

Serbia in 1988, shortly after Milosevic seized power, was Orwell's vision of 1984. This was a nasty, clapped-out land where children and cleaning ladies spied on their neighbours, listening for disloyalty. No leader was less in need of secret police. The people did it all for him.

At a restaurant in Belgrade I saw a man punched in the face at his table by a neighbouring diner who had overheard his irreverent comment about the great man. The dining-room went silent and no one stirred as the blood trickled down from the man's forehead. The postman in my flat once pinned me to the wall by the throat after he had grilled me about my views on the great man and I gave an evasive answer.

The police did not need to arrest the minute percentage of Serbs who opposed Milosevic. Friends and families cut them off as if they were lepers. The officials of the previous Stambolic regime, which had opposed Slobo's virulent nationalism, were non-persons. No one spoke to them, just as no one spoke to President Tito's widow, immured in her Belgrade villa.

It was utterly pointless to mention that Milosevic had reduced Serbia to poverty and hyper-inflation and Yugoslavia to a collection of warring statelets. The Serbs clung to Slobo as Christian martyrs clung to the cross. The more you pointed to his disasters, the more they hated and - in a sense - pitied you. "Don't you understand? He has saved Serbia!" my cleaning lady, Gina, used to shout.

The secret of Milosevic's power was his discovery that people love to hate. And nothing more exemplified the 1984-like state of Slobo's Serbia than the speed with which Serbia's enemies rotated on the TV screen. One month it was Slovenia. Then Croatia. Then Bosnia (Croatia was now our ally again). Then it was America. Then Albania. The Croats were always Fascist "Ustashe", the Bosnians were Islamic Fundamentalists. The Albanians were never Albanci, their correct name in Serbian, but Shiptari, a word that has the same connotations in Serbian as "nigger" does in English.

Night after night, at 7.30pm, the nation sat glued to the hour-long diatribe about Fascists, Fundamentalists and Shiptars that called itself the news. As in Orwell's Airstrip One, the "news" was always on. It blared at you in the café, the restaurant and in the street. The newsreaders' hyperactive voices tripped over their syllables as they gabbled breathlessly about Serbia's enemies, the fighting in Croatia and Bosnia, the Serbs' incredible victories at the front line and the bestial counter-attacks of the Croats or Bosnians.

This permanent, low-level, on-off, war in which Serbia was enmeshed from 1990 to 1999, formed Milosevic's perfect environment. It justified the privations, queues, red tape, the bellowing invocations to national unity, the rallies in the rain, the hunts for spies and the atmosphere of lawlessness, or rather, the notion that the only law was Milosevic's will.

It made people demented. A woman academic told me the women in Croatia were all wearing necklaces made of the fingers of Serbian children. When I said: "They have more fashion sense than to wear fingers", she looked at me as if I were the mad one. A Serb Orthodox priest regularly popped up on the TV brandishing a skull and crying that it belonged to a baby murdered by the Croats. Was I the only person, I wondered, who suspected this big, shiny, yellowing object never belonged to a baby and was as old as the hills?

No wonder Milosevic had difficulty believing the Serbs could ever reject him. He remembered the days when he was their god. Today, the Serbs have rubbed their eyes and woken from the long, bad dream. But the poison Milosevic drip-fed into Serbia will not be extricated by a mere change of government. Milosevic sowed enmity between the Serbs and their neighbours, and between the Serbs and the Western world. Repairing the damage may take an entire generation.

Marcus Tanner was 'The Independent' correspondent in Belgrade from 1987 to 1994 and the author of 'Croatia: A Nation Forged in War' (Yale University Press)

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