Up, Down and Out

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Review of 'Milosevic: A Biography', Adam LeBor, Bloomsbury £20

The Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle once commented that a well written life was as rare as a well spent one. Adam LeBor's biography of Slobodan Milosevic is that common thing--an inferior book about an infamous life.

Milosevic's early years are treated to an irritating dose of speculative pop psychology. When his father commits suicide, LeBor asks us to ponder the fact that Milosevic shared a 'history of paternal deprivation' with Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Bill Clinton. When teenage Milosevic falls for his sweetheart and future wife, she knowingly spots 'the raw material that she could shape into a future leader'. Even her liking for Greek tragedy is interpreted as 'a harbinger of the destruction of Yugoslavia' 30 years later!

Somehow, through all this nonsense, a coherent story emerges of a careerist who steadily progressed into the upper echelons of the Yugoslav ruling class. In what LeBor calls his 'capitalist years', Milosevic made his name as head of a state gas company before becoming president of Beobank, one of the biggest in Yugoslavia, which he 'boldly dragged... into the harsh world of genuine capitalist economic competition'.

As the Yugoslav economy began to nosedive in the 1980s, Milosevic's business experience led to his promotion to the political wing of the Yugoslav ruling class where he was viewed both at home and abroad as a modernising Balkan Gorbachev who would 'build capitalism'. Market reforms led to widespread social revolt across Yugoslavia. In the midst of this turmoil Milosevic took power by assuming leadership of those in the Serbian ruling class who wanted to appeal to nationalism to get them through the crisis. LeBor makes these connections, but his analysis is seriously marred by superficial comparisons between Milosevic and figures of a quite different order such as Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin.

Milosevic's bloody role in the destruction of Yugoslavia as he strove to create a Greater Serbia is dealt with in some detail, although LeBor does not add much, if anything, that is new. Nevertheless, he does point out that the strident nationalism of Croatian president Tudjman, 'just as hypocritical as Milosevic', was 'Belgrade's best recruiting agent'.

LeBor is more ambiguous about the West's role. He acknowledges that the US played a crucial role in the 'biggest single act yet of ethnic cleansing' when the Croatian army drove the Krajina Serbs from their homes in 1995. But he titles the next chapter on Bosnia 'America to the Rescue'. On the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, LeBor notes that the US did nothing to defend the Kurds in Turkey, or the Chechens in Russia, or the Tibetans in China. But he still claims that the bombing set 'an interesting precedent' for Nato.

All this comes to a head with LeBor's skewed assessment of the Serbian Revolution of 2000 that overthrew Milosevic. Here LeBor is determined to prove that the revolution was orchestrated by the West and notes that the US channelled funds to the Serbian opposition. Yet, as he unwittingly shows, this was not critical to the revolution. Quite the contrary. Kostunica, Milosevic's opponent in the presidential elections, declared US support would be 'the kiss of death' for his campaign. And although LeBor devotes just four sentences to the mass strikes led by Serbia's miners that brought Milosevic down, he eventually does tell us, 'If you have a million people on the streets, all over Belgrade and Serbia, then the army cannot do anything.'

LeBor's determination to spice up his story makes it sometimes read like a dime novel about a drink-crazed mafia don. Details such as Milosevic's penchant for double-breasted suits are given a ridiculously sinister air. And, like the stereotypical Balkan male, Milosevic loves his booze. In fact, we see him 'hit the bottle' and 'knock... back his last glass for the night' so often that his incarceration at the Hague must surely have been warmly welcomed by his liver.

LeBor covered the Balkan wars in the 1990s as a journalist. Unfortunately, despite occasional flashes of insight, this mediocre biography reproduces much of the superficial journalism of those years.