Desperately Seeking a Leader

Zoran Djindjic, prime minister and the most powerful man in Serbia since the October 2000 coup, was assassinated on March 12, 2003. Fate would have it that Slobodan Milosevic, the man Djindjic helped overthrow, and whom he illegally extradited to the Hague Inquisition in 2001, died in Scheveningen on March 11 last year. The anniversaries of their deaths – both still containing an element of mystery – fell within a day of each other, making the "Ides of March" a most volatile political week in Serbia.

As Djindjic and Milosevic were alternately glorified and vilified (depending on who did the talking) this week, amidst a continuing political crisis due to the inability of political parties to form a government almost two months after the general elections, one is tempted to wonder what drives the Serbs to look for a Leader?

This obsession is not limited to Serbia; Alija Izetbegovic was far more than a member of the state presidency to many Bosnian Muslims; "grandfather" or "First of the Bosniaks" were just some of his monikers. Franjo Tudjman was "father of Croatia." Kosovo Albanians have created personality cults around KLA chieftains Adem Jashari and Ramush Haradinaj. Nor is this phenomenon endemic to the Balkans – look at the cult of Ronald Reagan, or how personally certain Americans react to criticisms of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. As the 2008 election approaches, all focus is on the candidates personally, not the policies they represent (perhaps because there isn’t much difference there).

It would be interesting to explore whether the personality cult in the U.S. arose with Reagan, or with the Imperial Presidency of FDR, or even with the "cult of Lincoln." But that’s beyond the scope of this column. The acrimony accompanying the anniversaries of Djindjic’s and Milosevic’s death, however, provides a good backdrop for examining the need among Serbia’s political class to seek a leader they could either deify or demonize – or both.

Nemanjics, Lazar and Karadjordje

Some of the roots of Serbian devotion to singular leaders can be traced to a time centuries ago, when Stefan Nemanja wrested control of his principality from the Byzantines (1166). His second son became the first king of the Serbs, while his brother became the first archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian Orthodox church.

Around the time the Ottoman Turks invaded the Balkans, prince Lazar Hrebeljanovic emerged as the most influential noble in Serbia "through a combination of diplomacy, military action, and family alliances." It was Lazar who led the coalition of Christian forces against the Ottoman invaders in 1389. His narrow defeat on the fields of Kosovo earned him sainthood and a place in Serbian folk legend.

Serbs found a Leader again in 1804, when "Black" Djordje Petrovic (Karadjordje) led the great revolt against the Turks. Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 gave the Turks a chance to put down the revolt, but another rebellion followed in 1815. The leader of this rebellion, Milos Obrenovic, had Karadjordje killed in 1817 and his head delivered to the Turks. Serbian history of the 19th century is that of a bitter feud between supporters of these two houses, from which the Karadjordjevics eventually emerged triumphant. The last Obrenovic king was murdered in a 1903 palace coup, and Karadjordje’s grandson Petar became king.

From Pera to Sloba

King Peter was sometimes affectionately called "Uncle Pera," and under his rule Serbia prospered, asserted its independence from Austrian influence and confronted the Turks (regaining Kosovo in 1912). In 1915, following the third Austro-Hungarian invasion in the course of the Great War, the aging king followed his people into exile. His son Aleksandar became regent and presided over Serbia’s merging into the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" in 1918 (which he renamed "Yugoslavia" in 1929). Aleksandar was assassinated in 1934; his underage son Petar was forced to flee the country before a German-led invasion in 1941.

Under Nazi occupation, a civil war broke out in Serbia between the Royalists (led by Col. Mihailovic) and the Communists, led by Josip Broz Tito. When the Red Army entered Yugoslavia in late 1944, Tito’s forces emerged triumphant. Royalist supporters who fled to the West considered Mihailovic their hero; meanwhile, Serbia – like the rest of Yugoslavia – looked to Tito as the undisputed Leader for more than four decades.

Tito was able to remain the undisputed ruler of Yugoslavia in part because of a deliberately constructed cult of personality, but also because he ruthlessly purged anyone whose popularity threatened his own. After his death in 1980, the Yugoslav Communist Party was unable to elect a single successor, appointing instead an eight-man committee (delegated by Yugoslavia’s constituent republics, as well as two of Serbia’s autonomous provinces) to preside over the country. But without Tito, the deliberately conflicting arrangement of inter-republic relations began tearing Yugoslavia apart. The problem was especially acute in Serbia, where the two provinces behaved as virtual states – which particularly became an issue in Kosovo, where the Albanian population demanded independence.

Into this vacuum of leadership stepped Slobodan Milosevic ("Sloba"), a rising star of party politics who spent time in the West. Milosevic rode the wave of popular discontent first to purge the inept Communist leadership, then to amend the Constitution to revise the status of Serbia’s provinces (maliciously misrepresented as "abolition of autonomy"). Milosevic was president of Serbia (1990-1997) and FR Yugoslavia (1997-2000), until he resigned in October 2000 as thousands of protesters supporting the DOS coalition rioted in Belgrade. Throughout the 1990s, Milosevic was demonized as the fountainhead of evil, and the sole culprit for the wars and atrocities in the wars of Yugoslav succession.

The Deification of Zoran

Though Vojislav Kostunica succeeded Milosevic as president, it was the chief organizer of DOS, Zoran Djindjic, who became the real power in Serbia after October 2000. Contrary to posthumous efforts to idolize him, Djindjic was never elected on his own cognizance; the party ticket he rode to power in December 2000 was "DOS-Vojislav Kostunica."

Even before he became prime minister, Djindjic began staking his claim to power. Over the next two years, he illegally extradited Milosevic, maneuvered Kostunica’s party out of the parliament, dissolved Yugoslavia through a treaty with Montenegrin separatists, and sabotaged two presidential elections so he could eliminate Kostunica and appoint a crony as president. By the time he was murdered, Djindjic had become the most powerful man in Serbia.

His death left Serbia leaderless. Kostunica may have had the charisma to serve as the figurehead of an anti-Milosevic movement, but in the aftermath he was clearly outfoxed by Djindjic and his political allies. Milosevic’s admirable defense in The Hague was offset in great part by his ongoing demonization in the Serbian media as well as the West; those responsible for the 1999 bombing and occupation of Kosovo were all too happy to blame Milosevic for everything, and those who took over in October 2000 found it easy to scapegoat the ancien regime as well, once the promised fruits of "revolution" and "reforms" failed to materialize.

Like Tito, Djindjic cultivated a coterie of sycophants who could never seriously challenge his power. Upon his death, the hardline, "neo-Jacobin" elements of DOS took charge and imposed martial law, closing the media and jailing political opponents along with alleged crime lords. Between the "revolutionary purges" – which ended within weeks because DOS patrons in the West found them too embarrassing – and the corruption, incompetence and scandals that plagued DOS over the next nine months, Djindjic’s successors so endeared themselves to the Serbian electorate they were utterly routed in the December 2003 general elections. Djindjic, however, escaped this stench of failure and has been progressively built up as a secular saint, both by the mainstream "democrats" and their more militant kin.

Icons and Banners

Today, Serbia is without a government. President Tadic bills himself as the successor to Djindjic, while Prime Minister Kostunica claims his government cleaned up the mess left over from DOS. The ongoing Imperial pressure has made Milosevic into a symbol of resistance to the Empire (which he may not have deserved as a ruler, but certainly did as a defendant), but his name is still toxic in Serbian politics.

Faced with Imperial threats, confused political situation, economic problems and a culture still reeling from decades of Communism and "transition" through war and corruption, Serbia is desperately looking for a Leader. As they are lacking among the living, however, both the "reformers" and the "patriots" turn to the dead, making Djindjic and Milosevic into symbols they did not fit well when they were alive.

Return to Samuel

None of the current wannabe-leaders actually care about the true desires of Serbia’s people – instead, they talk about "Euro-Atlantic integrations" and "reforms" and "democracy" without actually explaining what any of these things mean.

On the other hand, the people of Serbia aren’t exactly their ancestors, either. The 20th century has taken its toll on culture, language, morals, values, traditions, even basic human decency. If one takes a long hard look at Serbians (but also people elsewhere), their greatest desire would have to be "someone else to take responsibility." They want someone to worship as much as someone to blame, so long as they don’t have to think or act for themselves. This is what collectivism and statism have wrought.

Strangely enough, this is an issue as old as the Bible. Serbians who are trying to reclaim their Orthodox faith could do well to read the first Book of Samuel (10-18), which contains perhaps one of the best descriptions of what a government (in this case, a king) does:

He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day."

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.