Dusko Doder and Louise Branson’s new biography dissects Slobodan Milosevic’s 12 years of bloody Balkan rule.

One of the few pleasures of reporting on Serbia, that most unpleasant Balkan country, is the Serb sense of humor—consistently black and biting, terrifically funny. A joke I heard from a Belgrade friend this past summer is a good example: Before dawn one morning, Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic is awakened by his startled wife, Mira Markovic.

“Slobo,” Mira says. “Get up! There are troops surrounding our villa!”

“Go back to sleep,” Milosevic says. “It’s the new Serbian border patrol.”

The odds on Milosevic’s survival have shrunken as much as the Serbia of my friend’s joke. NATO’s spring bombing campaign devastated Serbia’s infrastructure. The country’s image has been completely trashed by years of savage fighting, sanctions, and war-crimes indictments. International peacekeepers (brought mainly from NATO nations) patrol the same Kosovo that Serbia attempted to keep within its borders in a campaign of repression and ethnic cleansing. Now, it is the Serbs who are being ethnically cleansed from the province.

But Milosevic, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, has slipped his appointed noose thus far. How?

Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant (Free Press), a new biography by longtime Washington Post foreign correspondent Dusko Doder and the Scotsman’s Washington correspondent Louise Branson, explains, as thoroughly and clearly as anyone has yet, the nuances of Yugoslavia’s hopelessly entangled politics that have allowed the big bully to stay put. And in a mighty balancing act, it does so with great verve and readability—welcome qualities in Balkan lit.

Doder and Branson are married and live in Vienna, Va., with their two children, Thomas and Nicholas. Over coffee at their house, the two talk about the biography and the possible endgame for their biographical quarry. But one of the things I wonder most about is how they managed to balance the need for detail and context in telling Milosevic’s story against eliminating readers’ frustration.

“We worked in China,” Doder tells me. “And you cannot have Chinese names in the first five paragraphs, unless it is Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai or Deng Xiaoping or Jiang Zemin.”

“Jiang Zemin is already pushing it,” quips Branson.

“I know, as a reader,” Doder continues, “before going to China, I was put off by [it]. The names slow you down. So imagine trying to explain the difference between Bosnian Serbs, Serbian Serbs, Croat Serbs, and Montenegrin Serbs. And then there’s the Croatian Croats and the Croatian Serbs.”

Doder sighs. “You have to simplify. You have to reduce it to good guys and bad guys.”

Milosevic is Doder and Branson’s second collaboration. The first, 1990’s Gorbachev: Heretic in the Kremlin, was a New York Times bestseller. The books were 10 years apart, Branson says mischievously, “because it takes 10 years to repair the marriage.”

During the most violent years of former Yugoslavia’s wars, Branson worked as the Balkan bureau chief for the Sunday Times of London. Doder has spent three decades as a foreign correspondent, covering top-notch Cold War beats (Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China) for the Washington Post and (briefly) U.S. News & World Report. He also wrote two books before his collaborations with Branson, 1986’s Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin From Brezhnev to Gorbachev as well as a startlingly prescient look at former Yugoslavia, 1978’s The Yugoslavs. Published a decade before the country’s dissolution, The Yugoslavs predicted many factors that influenced its violent breakup: media repression, hidden currents of ethnic dissent, and the easily manipulated defense network under the direct control of Yugoslavia’s various republics (a strategy dubbed “territorial defense”).

Read today, Doder’s observations on the potential flaws of territorial defense amount to an astounding prediction:

Theoretically, the Yugoslav concept of territorial defense seems impressive. But how would it work in practice? Will citizens fight to the bitter end? What would happen if an enemy, using Yugoslavia’s internal weaknesses, managed by covert means to set one Yugoslav republic against another? Would territorial defense forces, which are practically under local control, lead the country into a civil war?

The enemy that Doder predicted was, as it turns out, an internal one. Milosevic describes that enemy’s long trail of stabbed backs, lies, warmongering, and paranoia. Doder and Branson’s book is studded with anecdotes that have a bittersweet or humorous twist to them, such as Doder and Branson’s portrayal of the Serb reaction to the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended Bosnia’s war:

Milosevic sold Dayton to the Serb nation as a personal diplomatic triumph. Newspaper headlines read: “Milosevic—the Man of Peace”…

“Decisive Role of the Serbian President.” The propaganda machine shifted into high gear to generate peace euphoria. The Socialists from the city of Nis proposed Milosevic for a Nobel Peace Prize: he had, they said, “united the Serb nation with the aim of realizing their national interests.” A brand-new gas station in downtown Belgrade was christened Dayton by the parliament president to commemorate the lifting of the UN embargo. A cabinet member, Dragan Kostic, who happened to be visiting a snowbound Moscow at the time, topped all accolades by insisting that to him it appeared that “the snow was joyful, the snow seemed less cold” as a result of Milosevic’s success.

Doder and Branson also include exceptional inside scoop on the failure of U.S. foreign-policy leaders to recognize the threat of Milosevic late in President George Bush’s term, and their rejection of a nonviolent means to oust him. The couple also dramatize their villain’s first real appearance on the Yugoslav stage, in 1963, when the 22-year-old Milosevic drew attention at a constitutional convention.

Around that time, Marshal Josip Broz Tito had decided to drop the Stalinist phrase “People’s Republic” from the official name of the country; the new official name was to be the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. During the debate, Milosevic raised his hand to propose a change in the word order to put the emphasis on the word “Socialist.” The proposal was endorsed and the amendment drafted. For the next three decades, the country’s official name would bear Milosevic’s stamp: the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

“This is the role of an acolyte,” Doder observes. “He wanted to show himself as a real communist, a real Bolshevik, by insisting on the socialist character.”

Branson adds that Milosevic “did it in such a way as to make a name for himself on an issue that was noncontroversial. [He wasn’t] going to stick his neck out for a dissident writer.”

Milosevic is a notoriously slippery figure, even for journalists versed in the Balkans. One Balkan press veteran told me a hilarious shaggy-dog story about attempts to set up an interview with Milosevic by phone. After multiple calls to his home phone number, which were terminated instantly by Markovic, the journalist persisted and got Milosevic on the line. The Yugoslavian president coyly denied his identity to the journalist, and then asked the reporter for a message that he might pass on.

Doder and Branson tell a similar tale. “We have met him at receptions and press conferences,” Doder says. “But we haven’t had a one-on-one.”

Milosevic’s elusiveness has led to some improbably narrow, and even comical, escapes from being removed from office. Even bribery has not succeeded. Doder and Branson write that Milosevic came tantalizingly close to resigning his position in a deal brokered by former Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic in 1992. In return, Milosevic would have been placed in charge of a new Yugoslav-American bank in California. The deal provided for a large salary, a yacht, and a mansion, to boot. (The deal was nixed, say the authors, by a combination of typical Milosevic betrayal and a botched meeting between Panic and then-Secretary of State James Baker.)

Doder dryly observes that seven years later, Milosevic is far from an idyllic career in the financial sector. “He is fighting for his life,” he says.

“There’s certainly nowhere for him to go,” Branson agrees. “He cannot survive if he is not the leader of Serbia.”

So how, exactly, do the authors explain Milosevic’s continued survival after last spring’s bombings and psychologically unnerving loss of Kosovo? Branson replies with another Serbian black jest: “One of the latest jokes in Belgrade is that Marko Milosevic, Slobodan Milosevic’s son, dies and goes to hell. He arrives and finds in hell: his father, Tony Blair, and Bill Clinton. Blair and Clinton are up to their necks in dung, and Milosevic is only up to his heels. So Marko says to him, ‘Hey, Dad, you didn’t do so badly after all.’ And Milosevic says, ‘Shhh, I’m standing on your mother’s shoulders.’”

“For me,” continues Branson, “the point is that [Milosevic, Blair, and Clinton] are equally hated characters. Because NATO has attacked Serbia, there’s an automatic nationalist response. There’s disillusionment with NATO and with Milosevic. People know they’re unhappy, but there’s no real focus for their hatred.”

The current stalemate has left Milosevic in power, too crippled to provoke more conflict in the near term, but no closer to being removed. The options for the United States, Doder argues, are unpalatable at best. “Maybe the only way forward is to do some sort of business with Serbia, if not with Milosevic himself,” says Doder. “Because I think that by the present policy, we’re digging ourselves further and further into the quagmire.”

Branson says that the West, and the United States in particular, hasn’t even been smart about trying to influence Milosevic’s eventual replacement. “The most likely successor to Milosevic will be somebody within the ruling Socialist Party,” Branson predicts. “So many of the opposition figures are discredited, and the people around Milosevic have been indicted also—which is not a smart move as far as I’m concerned, because you could have secret indictments. It’s in their interest to remain in power and for the party to remain in power. In fact, Milosevic gathered them all and actually gave them a pep talk recently.”

In Doder’s view, one of the prime morals to the ruthless and amoral rule of Slobodan Milosevic is a very simple one: “I think one of the most important things about the book is that individuals do make a difference,” Doder argues. “Take South Africa. After 28 years in a white jail, Nelson Mandela comes out and has the magnanimity and political judgment to say, ‘Let’s work together. It’s the only way to build a nation.’ And then you get a guy who’s as malevolent as this character, and you see what happens.”

“He’s actually the antithesis of Mandela,” Branson concurs. “Nelson Mandela tends to repair. Milosevic is a person who’s actually destructive of everyone around him. He destroys rather than builds.” CP