Serpent in the Bosom: The Rise and Fall of Slobodan Milosevic

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Lenard J. Cohen. Serpent in the Bosom: The Rise and Fall of Slobodan Milosevic. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001. xix, 438 pp. Maps. Figures. Illustrations. Index. $35.00, cloth.

Slobodan Milosevic (born in 1941) was the key decision-maker during the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. In Serpent in the Bosom: The Rise and Fall of Slobodan Milosevic, Lenard Cohen offers an excellent portrayal of Serbia's former president, his policies, and their disastrous effects on the Serbian people and neighbouring nations.

In the book, Cohen examines the role of Kosovo in Serbia's policy in the twentieth century; Milosevic's misuse of the Kosovo myth for nationalist purposes and his political rise; the opposition groups and movementsin Serbiaand Montenegro; NATO's air campaign against Yugoslavia in spring 1999; the postwar "meltdown of the Milosevic regime" and the election of Vojislav Kostunica as the new president of Yugoslavia in 2000. Cohen describes Milosevic's rule as a "soft dictatorship". The author emphasizes that Milosevic enjoyed significant popular support from a number of key political factors, including the Serbian Academy of Sciences, the Serbian Orthodox Church, Vojislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, and a leftist political party led by Milosevic's wife, Mirjana Markovic. Cohen concludes that the key pillars of the Milosevic regime were highly militarized police forces (he mistrusted the army generals), state-owned mass media, and his Socialist Party that ruled over the Serbian economy.

The reader can agree with Cohen's argument that Milosevic is neither another Saddam nor Hitler. Milosevic is "a political spokesman of nationalism rather than a committed nationalist himself" (p. 84). On some pages the reader gets a glimpse of Milosevic's personality behind the politician's facade. After his grandson Marko was born, Milosevic said, "Our little grandson ... is growing up with a lot of love from his mother's and father's families, and I hope this will affect the development of his personality" (p. 344). Cohen adds to this: "It is intriguing to speculate on whether Milosevic's last comment was prompted by his own youth in a broken family, and the later suicide of his mother and father." (The transcripts of Milosevic's telephone conversations during the late 1990s, secretly recorded and released by the Croatian military intelligence (see Globus, 1 February 2002, pp. 8-19), offer more information about the intra-family relationships.)

In some situations, Milosevic seemed to be almost fatalistic. Cohen quotes the American mediator Richard Holbrooke's last meeting with Milosevic, on 23 March 1999: "I said to him [Milosevic] 'when I leave this room if you have not accepted the position that our NATO and Contact Group allies and friends including the Russians put forward at Rambouillet [France],is it clear to you that NATO bombing of the country will start and it will be'-and I used these three words deliberately and after consultations with the Pentagon-'swift, severe, and sustained?' ...Milosevic said 'I understand this. You will bomb us. There is nothing I can do to prevent it'" (p. 271). The NATO air campaign, intended to stop Serbia's discrimination against Kosovar Albanians, began on the next day (March 24). The war ended at the beginning of June. Even though the Serbian armed forces withdrew from the province, the situation remained highly explosive. …