A good biography of Slobodan Milosevic would be a major public service. It could be used to help voters select the candidate most likely to be a murderous deceiver.
Like most war-mongering megalomaniacs, he has hidden the data a good biographer needs. Occasionally, a really sharp writer captures the essence of such a ruler with little data but a lot of insight. Macchiavelli accomplished this for Cesare Borgia. But not many writers have Macchiavelli's touch.
Rulers who provoke widespread killing - Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, for example - usually disguise their intentions, eschew confidantes, kill those who know too much. They also lie. Milosevic has done all these things. But he is even more elusive than most of his kind. His years as president of Beogradska Banka, in particular his regular visits to its New York office, gave him a taste for the US, international finance and western techniques for running the economy. When he became president of Serbia, he seemed to enjoy telling western journalists that he was going to kick his country's economy into growth the capitalist way. Perhaps he meant it.
When he met western heads of state, foreign ministers and diplomats, he professed a distaste for jingoism. Adam LeBor writes that Milosevic was not a nationalist. His wife, Mira, is also quoted as saying so. If they are right, Milosevic used nationalism first to win power, then to keep it, without ever caring for the cause.
His behaviour towards the Serbs in Croatia and in Bosnia supports that judgement. He backed both groups when it suited his purpose, ruthlessly killing their enemies. But when the price of backing fellow Serbs became painful, he abandoned them.
If withdrawing the protection of the Yugoslav army from the Serbs of Krajina - exposing them to ethnic cleansing - caused Milosevic any distress, he kept it to himself.
As for the Serbs of Bosnia, the contempt he showed for their representatives throughout the peace negotiations at Dayton, Ohio, has been well documented. He dumped them. What mattered was to show he was America's man, the statesman who could bring Bosnia peace.
About Kosovo, by contrast, he has repeatedly spoken as though he cared. With apparent passion he has asserted it was the heart of Serbia. Did he really believe this? Or were these, yet again, words of pure opportunism?
He was apparently more unhappy at losing the Kosovo war than he had been after his Croatian and Bosnian defeats. Was this because for him the final bell was now tolling? Or was it because the loss of Kosovo really got to him? These are the kinds of questions a definitive biography of Milosevic should help answer.
LeBor's book is not that definitive work. It is ill timed. Nobody could produce a good biography of Milosevic just now. The evidence about his involvement in ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia has yet to be laid out before the international tribunal at The Hague. (The evidence about his role in Kosovo has been presented but only recently - LeBor does no more than skim over it.) Until the lawyers at The Hague have presented all their evidence, to attempt a biography is a bit like attempting the marathon minus one leg.
Worse, Milosevic's aggressive, contemptuous performance is going down well in Serbia. Many people are unemployed and they sit in cafes watching him live on TV as he tells victims of ethnic cleansing and their relatives giving evidence against him that they do not know what they are talking about. He studies the prosecution evidence carefully, but does not make much effort to prove it false. Rather, he uses The Hague as a stage from which to delight fellow Serbs. The result is operatic - Slobo as Iago. Opinion polls suggest his curled lip is winning him growing support. If he is convicted, many Serbs will shriek that it is an appalling injustice.
This is another reason why 2002 was the wrong year in which to publish his biography. Serbs who know a thing or two about Milosevic fear that to speak now will make them unpopular with some tough fellow citizens. In the recent Serbian election, President Vojislav Kostunica made appeals reminiscent of Milosevic, backing Serb nationalists in Bosnia. This is not the moment for a prudent Serb to reveal sensitive truths about Milosevic to an English journalist.
If this book cannot be the definitive biography of Milosevic, what is it? The answer is: a cuttings job. Newspaper journalists such as LeBor frequently have to write the background to today's story, using as their main source the cuttings library. So is this a good cuttings job?
I have to declare an interest. The source LeBor quotes most often is a series of six television programmes made under my oversight, The Death of Yugoslavia . He describes our series and its accompanying book as "an invaluable resource for any student of this period".
I would like to respond to these kind words by saying that he has built well on our foundations. But I cannot. He has used the revelations we made seven years ago, but failed to get much further. He has interviewed some of those we spoke to - and a few others - but he has found out little more.
So we await the definitive book on Milosevic. He is a great subject. To get him right will require the qualities of an Alan Bullock. But it cannot be done until close colleagues of Milosevic share their knowledge with us.
Perhaps, once his starring role at The Hague is over, Milosevic himself will settle down at a computer and provide some of the clues we need. Slobo, if you are reading this, do us a favour.
Brian Lapping is (jointly with Norma Percy) executive producer of a series of three 90-minute programmes, The Fall of Milosevic , scheduled to be broadcast on BBC2 in January.
Milosevic: A Biography
Author - Adam Lebor
ISBN - 0 7475 6090 0
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £20.00
Pages - 386
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