For the past two-and-a-half millennia, our civilization has cultivated tragedy as an art form that articulates some of the key problems of our existence.  Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III—these works speak timeless truths in an ever-contemporary language.

In the case of Serbia’s former president Slobodan Milosevic, reality has proved equal to inspired imagination.  His life, which ended under suspicious circumstances in a prison cell at The Hague on March 11, could have come straight out of Shakespeare.  All of the necessary ingredients were there: ambition, pride, power, violence, a malevolently overbearing wife, manipulation, duplicity, hubris, fall—and, finally, fortitude in misfortune, soon to be followed by posthumous redemption among the people he had let down.

Milosevic’s 64 years can be divided into four periods of unequal duration and significance.  The first, from his birth in 1941 to his meteoric rise to power in early 1987, was the longest and least interesting.  The only unusual element in his early biography is the suicide of both of his parents, who had separated when he was a child.  At 24, he married his only sweetheart, Mirjana Markovic, the illegitimate daughter of a high-ranking communist official.  She was neurotic, uncompromisingly hard-left in her politics, ambitious, and able to dominate “her Sloba” until the very end.

To all appearances, until 1987, Milosevic was an unremarkable apparatchik.  His solid party credentials—he joined the League of Communists as a high-school senior in 1959—were essential to his professional advancement.  After graduating from Belgrade’s school of law in 1964, he held a variety of business-administration posts, eventually becoming director of a major bank and, briefly, its representative in New York.  By the early 80’s, he increasingly turned to politics and made his way up the party ladder by forging alliances and friendships that were pragmatic rather than ideological.  His name remained relatively unknown outside the ranks of the nomenklatura.

Then came the turning point.  As president of the League of Communists of Serbia, Milosevic traveled in April 1987 to the town of Kosovo Polje, in the restive southern Serbian province of Kosovo, to quell the protests by local Serbs who were unhappy with the lack of support they were getting from Belgrade in the face of ethnic-Albanian pressure.  When the police started dispersing the crowd using batons, Milosevic stopped them and uttered the words that were to change his life and that of a nation: “No one is allowed to beat you people; no one will ever hit you again,” he told the cheering crowd.

Weary of two generations of Serbian communist leaders who were subservient to Tito and reluctant to advance their republic’s interests (lest they be accused of “greater Serbian nationalism”), ordinary Serbs responded with enthusiasm.  The word of a new kind of leader spread like wildfire.  Milosevic’s populism worked wonders at first, enabling him to eliminate all political opponents within the party leadership of Serbia at a marathon 30-hour Central Committee session in September 1987.  Huge rallies in Belgrade’s Confluence Park (1988) and in Kosovo (1989) to mark the 600th anniversary of the historic Battle of Kosovo reflected the genuine popularity that he enjoyed in Serbia, Montenegro, and Serbian-inhabited parts of Bosnia and Croatia.

Far from proclaiming an agenda for expansion, as his accusers later alleged, his speech in Kosovo was full of old ideological clichés and “Yugoslav” platitudes:

Equal and harmonious relations among Yugoslav peoples are a necessary condition for the existence of Yugoslavia and for it to find its way out of the crisis and, in particular, they are a necessary condition for its economic and social prosperity . . . Internal and external enemies . . . organize their activity against multinational societies mostly by fomenting national conflicts.  At this moment, we in Yugoslavia are behaving as if we have never had such an experience.

The precise nature of his long-term agenda was never stated, however, because it had not been defined.  He was able to gain followers from widely different camps, including hard-line party loyalists as well as anticommunist nationalists, because all tended to project their hopes, aspirations, and fears onto Milosevic—even though those hopes and aspirations were often mutually incompatible.

The key issue was the constitutional framework within which the Serbs should seek their future.  They were unhappy with Tito’s arrangements, which kept them divided into five units in the old Yugoslav federation.  Milosevic wanted to redefine the nature of that federation, rather than abolish it.  Then and throughout his life, he was a “Yugoslav” rather than a “Greater Serb.”  He was so deeply steeped in the communist legacy of his formative years—and so utterly unable to resist pressure from his doctrinaire wife—that, even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he kept the old insignia with the red star, together with the leadership structure and mind-set of the old Titoist order.

The tensions of this period could have been resolved by the development of a clear strategy once the war broke out—first, in Croatia (in summer 1991); then, in Bosnia (in the spring of 1992).  This did not happen.  In the third phase of Milosevic’s career, from mid-1991 to October 5, 2000, a cynically manipulative Mr. Hyde finally prevailed over the putative national leader, Dr. Jekyll.  As the fighting raged around Vukovar and Dubrovnik, he made countless contradictory statements, always stressing that “Serbia is not at war.”

By blithely recognizing the secessionist republics, the “international community” effectively became a combatant in the wars of Yugoslav secession.  Its “mediators” accepted a role that was not only subordinate but squalid.  Lord David Owen, prominent among them, conceded that Tito’s boundaries were arbitrary and should have been redrawn at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration: “[T]o rule out any discussion or opportunity for compromise in order to head off war was an extraordinary decision,” he wrote,

to have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries of the six republics within the former Yugoslavia as being the boundaries for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition itself.

Still, he and a legion of other mediators stuck, unyieldingly, to that formula.  As I wrote in Chronicles nine years ago,

The Serbs’ striving to remain part of one state when Yugoslavia started disintegrating—a desire as natural as it is reasonable—was proclaimed from inside the Beltway to be the deadliest of sins by those whose goal is a world in which any bonds of loyalty born out of centuries of shared experience will be eradicated . . . Such policy is shaped by people who have failed to recognize—or, worse still, understand but do not care—that the same forces which have torn Bosnia asunder are also present in many American cities, as well as in Marseilles, Berlin, and Amsterdam.

Milosevic’s diplomatic ineptitude and his chronic inability to grasp the importance of lobbying and public relations in Washington and other Western capitals enabled the secessionists to have a free run of the media with the simplistic notion that “the butcher of the Balkans” was overwhelmingly, even exclusively, guilty of all the horrors that had befallen the former Yugoslavia.  At the same time, far from seeking the completion of a “Greater Serbia” project while he had the military wherewithal to do so (1991-95), Milosevic attempted to fortify his domestic position in Belgrade by trading in the Western Serbs (in the Krajina and Bosnia) for Western benevolence.

It worked for a while.  “The Serbian leader continues to be a necessary diplomatic partner,” the New York Times opined in November 1996, a year after the Dayton Agreement ended the war in Bosnia, thanks to Milosevic’s pressure on the Bosnian Serb leadership.  His status as a permanent fixture in the Balkan landscape seemed secure.

That all changed with the escalation of the crisis in Kosovo.  His belated refusal at Rambouillet to sign on yet another dotted line paved the way for NATO’s illegal bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999.  For one last time, the Serbs rallied under the leader many of them no longer trusted, aware that the alternative was to accept the country’s open-ended Balkanization.  For one last time, they were let down: Milosevic saved Clinton’s skin by capitulating in June of that year and letting NATO occupy Kosovo just as the bombing campaign was running out of steam.

The ensuing mass exodus of Kosovo’s quarter-million Serbs and the torching of their homes and churches by KLA terrorists did not prevent Milosevic from pretending that his superior statesmanship, embodied in the unenforceable U.N. Security Council Resolution 1244, had saved the country’s integrity.  The subsequent reconstruction effort in Serbia was used as propaganda to improve the rating of his own Socialist Party of Serbia and his wife’s minuscule “Yugoslav United Left.”

For many Serbs, this was the final straw.  Refusing to recognize the change of mood, in mid-2000, Milosevic followed his wife’s advice and called a snap election, hoping to secure his position for another four years.  He was unable to beat his chief challenger, Vojislav Kostunica, in the first round and succumbed to a wave of popular protest when he tried to deny Kostunica’s victory in the closely contested runoff.

His downfall on October 5, 2000, would not have been possible, however, if the military and the security services had not abandoned him.  There had been too many defeats and too many wasted opportunities over the previous decade and a half for the security chiefs to continue trusting Milosevic implicitly.  Their refusal to fire on the crowds—as his half-demented wife allegedly demanded on that day—sealed Milosevic’s fate.  After five months’ powerless isolation in his suburban villa, he was arrested and taken to Belgrade’s central prison.  On June 28, 2001, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic arranged for his transfer to The Hague Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal, in violation of Serbia’s laws and constitution.

The final four years of Milosevic’s life were spent in prison.  During this time, the haughty and arrogant know-it-all of previous years rapidly evolved into a hard-working, superbly focused, and efficient lawyer who conducted his own complex defense.  He was helped by an indictment that was hastily concocted at the height of the bombing campaign in May 1999 to serve political purposes.

In preparing his defense, Milosevic was initially guided by personal motives.  By the end of 2003, however, he came to realize that, regardless of his own destiny, what he was doing had a wider historical significance.  He was accused of “genocide,” a crime that places collective stigma on a nation, not just its leader.  Furthermore, the accusation of a “joint criminal conspiracy” intent on creating a “Greater Serbia” was transformed by the tribunal into an attempt to misrepresent two centuries of Serbian history as an open-ended quest for aggressive expansion.  As John Laughland wrote in the Spectator last year, the Milosevic trial has shown the futility of trying to submit political decisions to the judgment of criminal law:

Because it seeks to comprehend war as the result of the decisions of individuals, and not as the consequence of conflict between states, modern international humanitarian law sees trees but no wood.  In the Milosevic trial, the role of the other Yugoslav leaders in starting the war—especially those who declared secession from Yugoslavia—is grossly obscured, as is that of the countless Western politicians and institutions who were intimately involved at every stage of the Yugoslav conflict, and who encouraged the secessions.

Grasping the extent to which his trial was also the trial of the Serbian people, Milosevic succeeded, for the first time in his life, in transcending the limitations of ideology and egotism that had blinkered him for so long.  He turned the trial, heralded by the Western media as a new Nuremberg, into a political embarrassment for the “international community.”  His defense, effective and at times brilliant, finally blended Milosevic’s personal interest with the interest of his people.  When I met him at his cell in June 2004, he told me that he might never get out of there, but he was certain that his “refutation of [chief prosecutor Carla] del Ponte’s ridiculous indictment would set the record of history straight.”