Portrait of a Tyrant

By Dusko Doder and Louise Branson

Free Press. 304 pp. $25

Reviewed by Tom Gjelten

Of all the Balkan questions that madden U.S. policymakers, the most vexing must be how to handle Slobodan Milosevic. First, we convince ourselves we can deal with him as the president of Yugoslavia and the leader of the Serb nation; then we decide we should try to dislodge him by promoting his opponents. Neither idea gets us anywhere. Perhaps we have too much faith in the political process. We assume that a leader will choose ultimately to act in his country's best interests, and that when he does not he will have to answer for it. But, as Dusko Doder and Louise Branson make clear, that logic underestimates the capacities of someone as cynical, ruthless and cunning as Slobodan Milosevic.

Portrait of a Tyrant is the story of "one warped and malevolent man" who provoked wars against his neighbors and ravaged his own nation without remorse, aiming only "to enlarge his power and keep his own people distracted." Other writers have reached similar conclusions, but this is the first book in English focusing exclusively on Milosevic as the central evil figure of the Yugoslav horrors. For all that has already been said about Milosevic, Doder and Branson manage to make him even more astoundingly awful.

Maybe his lonely childhood made him a bitter and uncaring adult. Milosevic was raised by his mother but abandoned her after he found Mira Markovic, who became his wife. Despairing, his mother hanged herself from a light fixture in 1972, when Milosevic was 31. For whatever reason, Milosevic as Serbia's leader had no aptitude for diplomacy, the authors write, because "he seemed incapable of entering into the minds of his neighbors or understanding their fears."

Doder and Branson are not Serb-bashers. They were based in Belgrade from 1990 to 1996, speak Serbo-Croatian, and write with sympathy for the Serbian people. But it seems that those who know Milosevic best are the ones who come to despise him the most. Former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, once his regular dinner companion, was the first senior U.S. official to brand Milosevic a "war criminal." And Milan Panic, the Serbian-American businessman Milosevic chose to be Yugoslav prime minister in 1992, is now calling on the United States and its allies to "take him out." Read this book, and you will understand why. Doder and Branson describe how Milosevic, then Serbia's president, carried out a brazen coup against Panic, sending in Serbian police to occupy the federal interior ministry late one Saturday night.

Milosevic got away with such moves because he is smart. He deserves credit for sensing the moment when he could gain power by breaking the old Yugoslav taboo against invoking nationalist sentiment, which he did in 1987 by encouraging the venting of Serb grievances against the Albanian majority in Kosovo. In the process, he betrayed his friend and mentor Ivan Stambolic, then Serbia's president and the man who had put Milosevic in the position of authority he enjoyed. Stambolic, a decent if stodgy old communist, was no match for his clever protege, who was of a new breed of media-savvy communist politicians. Milosevic, write Doder and Branson, introduced "a new type of dictatorship: a television dictatorship, backed up by police."

The challenge Doder and Branson face in this book is to advance the Milosevic story when so much has been written about him already. They are not always successful. The last third of their book, chronicling Milosevic's role in the Dayton peace negotiations, his battles with the opposition in the winter of 1996-1997, and the story of the Kosovo conflict, appears to be gleaned largely from press accounts and does not add much that is new.

Still, all these events make more sense when reconsidered in the light of what Doder and Branson reveal about Milosevic the man. His flexibility at Dayton, which so impressed his American hosts and his acceptance of NATO's surrender terms in Kosovo do not indicate statesmanship as much as they suggest how unprincipled Milosevic has been from the beginning.

In the end, he was not all that serious about any cause for which he made Serbs fight and die, not even on the sacred soil of Kosovo, where Prince Lazar made his losing stand against the Turks in 1389. "If there was an ultimate aim in his mind," the authors write, "it was his own survival. He had clothed himself in the glory of the Kosovo myth and spun dreams of the Heavenly Empire, but unlike Lazar he was a cynical man who did not believe in Lazar's kingdom of truth and justice and who had misused the old legends to do harm not only to other people but to his own nation."

How long can this continue? Milosevic is now under international indictment for war crimes and likely to be imprisoned if he dares to leave Yugoslav territory. He survives by drawing circles ever more tightly around himself, but that leaves less room to maneuver. He pronounced Kosovo a victory for the Serbian people, but now even his own government officials say the province is lost. When Milosevic and his wife, Mira, finally reach the end of their road, they are likely to be alone, just as they have always seen themselves.

Tom Gjelten is diplomatic correspondent for National Public Radio and author of "Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege."