News 08 Feb 17

UK Ex-Ambassador Recalls Milosevic’s ‘Brooding Presence’

At the launch of his new book on his encounters with the former Serbian leader, Sir Ivor Roberts recalls a man who was wily and intelligent but who had “no long-term strategy”.

Marcus Tanner
Former British Ambassador to Yugoslavia Sir Ivor Roberts. Photo: UK in Italy/Flickr

Former British ambassador to Yugoslavia Sir Ivor Roberts painted a sombre portrait of the twilight years of the Milosevic regime in Yugoslavia at the launch of his book, Conversations with Milosevic, at London’s LSE on Tuesday.

Sir Ivor, who was British ambassador to the dying Yugoslav state from 1994 to 1997 and later returned as a Western envoy shortly before the war in Kosovo, said he was a frequent guest of Milosevic’s at the grim-looking and virtually deserted presidential palace in Belgrade where he would usually find the Serbian leader lodged behind a huge, empty desk with a picture of devoted spouse Mirjana on it.

Sir Ivor said Milosevic was by turns genial, charming but sometimes also drunk and abusive.

He said the paradox of the Milosevic regime was that, by the time he arrived in the mid-1990s, Milosevic had retreated from the public arena and was hardly ever to be seen or heard.

“Invisible and inaudible, there were only a couple of pictures [in the media],” he said, despite which “his brooding presence permeated every inch of Belgrade. It was as if he was the only three-dimensional figure in Serbian politics”.

Sir Ivor, who said Milosevic’s “operating style was conspiratorial”, said he was also capable of great personal charm and could recall minute details of people’s personal lives.” He would “fix visitors with his blue-eyed stare.”

The flip side of this apparent attention to detail was complete indifference to the fate of his many victims, who included his own former political patron, Ivan Stambolic.

Sir Ivor also said he soon concluded that Milosevic was a man devoid of real strategy. Having “no long-term vision” beyond his own political survival, his principal technique was to play the role of both “pyromaniac and fire-fighter” in the Balkans, stirring up various “fires” in order to then put them out.

Sir Ivor said he was struck by the air of almost constant “internecine warfare” in the Milosevic era between Serbia’s political class, between Milosevic and the Bosnian Serbs and between the leaders of the Serbian opposition - who he said he did not live up to the word “Zajedno” meaning “Together”.

Towards the end of the Bosnian war - another of the fires that Milosevic helped to start and then put out, as Sir Ivor said - Milosevic was increasingly “subdued and listless” as well as infuriated by the obstinacy of the Bosnian Serb leaders, the “three Ks”, Koljevic, Karadzic and Krajisnik.

When the Bosnian Serbs captured UN peacekeepers in 1995, Sir Ivor recalled, Milosevic’s patience snapped and he informed them that if they did not release the hostages, he have them killed.

As Serbia lurched into yet another conflict, over Kosovo, Sir Ivor said Milosevic’s self-pityingly mood worsened. He assured Sir Ivor that Serbia would be “a disaster” without him and hold him at their last meeting that he had “trusted people too much”.

By then, Sir Ivor said, Milosevic was increasingly in a “twilight-of-the-Gods” mood, and appeared to see himself as “a new prince Lazar”, referring to the iconic medieval prince who swapped earthly victory for heavenly glory at the seminal 1389 Battle of Kosovo.

Milosevic’s regime did indeed collapse as a result of the Kosovo in 1999, falling in 2000, after which the new government handed him over the Hague war crimes tribunal, the ICTY. He died before his trial ended, in 2006.

Sir Ivor was ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1994 to 1997 and was later British ambassador to Ireland and Italy.

Conversations with Milosevic is published by University of Georgia Press.

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