In the late 1980s, Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia on a message of bellicose ethno-nationalism, promising a “Greater Serbia” and an end to Muslim threats against Orthodox Serbs. To many commentators, the parallels between Milošević and Donald Trump are self-evident -- and the implications, potentially harrowing. Bob speaks with Peter Maass, senior editor at The Intercept, about the lessons we can draw from the Serbian experience.
Middlesex Times by Michael Andrews
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. In the late 1980s, Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Serbia on a message of bellicose ethno-nationalism. “Greater Serbia” he promised, along with an end to Muslim threats against Orthodox Serbs. Sound at all familiar? It has to many commentators, and the implications are terrifying. After all, Milošević’s populist incitement fomented war in three ex-Yugoslavian countries, one of which resulted in a bloody genocide in Bosnia. But, once again, beware the popular narrative. To Peter Maass, who covered the Balkan wars for the Washington Post, the search for historical parallels can be facile. There are similarities, yes, he says, but many fundamental differences.
PETER MAASS: Milošević was cold, Milošević was not narcissistic. He wasn’t even all over the news and all over the headlines. He really didn't care about his own personal glory. He cared about power and the best way to stay in it. But if being in the background was the way to stay in power, he was very happy with that. He was also a very smart guy, extremely canny. He was incredibly adept at navigating politics, at pulling the strings and knowing how to make things work out in his favor, quietly. He had great control of himself and he had great control of the country.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so it’s settled. They have absolutely nothing in common, except everything. [LAUGHS] Tell me, please, about the “everything.” I guess it should begin with Kosovo, Milošević’s “Make America Great Again.”
PETER MAASS: In 1987, Milošević, who was a relatively unknown Communist Party official, went to Kosovo to kind of try to settle down some Serbs who were angry there over the ethnic Albanians that they were living with. And Milošević told the Serbs – he was speaking to a group of them outside a municipal building - you will never be beaten again. And he did, with that, kind of break a taboo, which is to play the card of nationalism. That was his “Make Serbia Great Again” moment. And he then went back to Belgrade and he began taking control of Serbia, using nationalism: The Serbs have been beaten. The Serbs have been deprived of their rightful homes and rightful territory, particularly in Kosovo. We are being chased out of our houses by these Muslims, etc. etc., etc., not, I should say, because he believed it. Nobody believed that Milošević was actually a true nationalist. Even the true nationalists in Belgrade said, he's not one of us. But he used it because he knew that was the way to gain and to hold onto power, and in a very similar way, obviously, Trump, you know, saying to his audience, principally his political core audience of white Americans, you will never be ignored again.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so both Trump and Milošević pried open Pandora's Box with nationalist rhetoric, and they spared no lie to do so. [LAUGHS] Tell me about Milošević and the political lie.
PETER MAASS: When Milošević was kind of at the height of his power, I was working for the Washington Post and I requested an interview with him and, to my surprise, I was granted an interview with him. And it was just me and Milošević for 90 minutes, one-on-one. There were no note takers, no translators, no bodyguards, even. And Milošević looked me in the eye and told me all of these lies that he’d been telling everybody else who came into the office, particularly American visitors, European negotiators, etc.: I'm not responsible for what's going on in Bosnia. It’s not just Serbs who are committing crimes, everybody's committing crimes there. Isn’t it such a tragedy? It’s really terrible. We all need to just be more kind to each other. [LAUGHS]
And I had been to Bosnia. I had reported on these crimes. I had seen the Serbian militias of the former Yugoslav army committing these crimes and I looked at him and I said, but I’ve been there, I’ve seen these things, [LAUGHS] and this just isn't true. Your people are actually doing this and you do have control over them. And he just looked at me and he just said, no, I don't – I don’t know where you get these ideas from. And he looked at me with, you know, utter sincerity, as though he actually was [LAUGHS] concerned for my ability to discern fact from lies. It was as if I was trying to, you know, grab hold of and throttle a hologram or something. I could not touch him, and he didn't really even care that much about persuading me. He just wanted to transmit a message to Washington.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, now you can’t tell lies and create a false narrative in a vacuum. Trump faces the complication of having a free press to deal with. Milošević had an easier time of it.
PETER MAASS: What was on Serbian TV was entirely controlled by Milošević, and any journalists who had any sense of independence ended up leaving or being forced out or silenced, so that it really was just kind of a unanimous clamor of whatever it was that Milošević wanted to be clamored about.
BOB GARFIELD: So, Milošević didn’t have to bother discrediting or delegitimizing the Serbian media, but there was the problem of the whole rest of the world and being treated as a pariah by the New York Times and everyone else. How did he deal with that?
PETER MAASS: This might remind you of somebody you know, but Milošević constantly complained about the Western media's treatment of Serbia and what was going on in Bosnia and the blame that Serbia was getting. When I walked into his office, before he said hello to me, his first questions to me - I was the representative of the Washington Post – were, why are you writing such lies about my country?
But the interesting thing also internationally with Milošević’s message is that he couldn't control, obviously, what people in Washington or London or Paris read, heard, saw to the extent that he could in Serbia, but his message did get across and it didn't persuade people in Washington or London or Paris that, oh my God, these Bosnian Muslims are fundamentalists and they’re chasing the Serbs out of their homes and it's not Milošević‘s fault; he’s really a peacemaker. People in Western capitals didn’t believe that, but the force of Milošević’s message did kind of make people wonder if there were two sides of the argument that they had to listen to and treat equally. It threw enough doubt, kind of enough dust into people's eyes so that the passion that would be needed to take Milošević on was pretty much lacking, until there was really no other choice.
BOB GARFIELD: What finally brought him down?
PETER MAASS: The economic disaster that his war policies were connected to ended up sapping him of the support of his core constituency, working-class Serbs, who realized that, okay, fine, we've got physical control of much of Bosnia, that's great, but they knew that they were now living more economically wretched, hopeless lives than they had been before. The promises he had made to ordinary Serbs, to his constituency, were shown to just have been total rubbish. He wasn’t making a greater Serbia. He was making a worse Serbia.
BOB GARFIELD: Throughout his period in power, Milošević jiggered with but basically maintained fundamental democratic institutions to create the illusion that he was operating under democratic principles. Ultimately, those very democratic mechanisms were his undoing.
PETER MAASS: This is the interesting thing, and this is what can be dispiriting, perhaps. After everything that had happened, years of warfare beginning in Slovenia, than Croatia, than Bosnia, then Kosovo, then the US bombing, the total collapse of the Serbian economy, middle class and others fleeing the country, after more than a decade of Milošević’s terrible rule, the election that was his most immediate undoing, the opposition candidate just barely got more votes than he did.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter, [LAUGHS] thank you very much.
PETER MAASS: Thank you, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Maass is a senior editor at The Intercept.