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Monday, 21 November 2016

Conversations with Milošević

Slobodan Milošević was one of the central figures in the story of Yugoslavia’s disintegration and the wars that surrounded it. One of the few Western diplomats that had constant and direct access to him during this time was Sir Ivor Roberts, the former British representative in Belgrade and current president of Trinity College, Oxford. Roberts’ new book ‘Conversations with Milošević’, which he presented on 17 November at a SEESOX seminar chaired by Sir David Madden (St Antony’s College), chronicles the forty-odd meeting that occurred between the two men. For many, as Madden told the audience in his introduction, the book’s title echoes Milovan Djilas’ contribution entitled ‘Conversations with Stalin’, for like him Roberts presents a detailed account of encounters with an autocrat.

As Roberts explained at the beginning of his talk, the book was written some time ago but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office only recently gave permission for it to be published. Given that the book details meetings with ‘many unpleasant people’ and is full of ‘dark pages’, as Roberts said, this is maybe may not surprising. When Roberts came to Belgrade in early 1994, the posting had been described to him as challenging and Milošević’s reputation as ‘the butcher of the Balkans’ was firmly lodged with him. His assignment was to get to know how and what Milošević thought, for the latter was seen as a solution to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Roberts describes Milošević as a ‘cold narcissist’ with a conspiratorial style of ruling and no regard whatsoever for the suffering of others, but also as a man gifted with charm and able to recall the most private details of one’s personal life at later meetings. As one of his biographers said, Milošević was simultaneously a pyromaniac and a fireman. Roberts furthermore explained that Milošević adopted nationalism as a convenient temporary guise, just as he had become a communist out of convenience. His wife Mira once said that ideology never meant as much to her husband as it meant for her. Milošević reinvigorated the communist party by forcing it to adopt nationalism after seeing the appeal of it during the situation he faced in Kosovo in the late 1980s. 

During most of Roberts’ term in Belgrade, meetings with Milošević followed the same format. They would happen in the traditional office of the president with all formalities between a president and an ambassador observed. Roberts would deliver the message he was supposed to deliver and Milošević would complain about the lack of international support and the detrimental effects of sanctions imposed upon Yugoslavia. Roberts would respond that Milošević would have to show more positive engagement to get the sanctions lifted. 

For the most part, the book is a detailed account of the meetings between Milošević and Roberts, as the latter experienced them. But apart from the main character, Roberts also reports o his encounters with ‘the three Ks’, i.e. the Bosnian Serb leadership consisting of Radovan Karadžić, Nikola Koljević, and Momčilo Krajšnik, as well as his meeting with the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić. All these meetings differed in terms of topic and intensity, depending on the situation on the ground. Roberts describes in detail the disastrous events of the summer of 1995, the expulsion of the Krajina Serbs from Croatia, the taking of UN soldiers hostage by the Bosnian Serbs and their negotiated release and above all the events leading up to and around the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica by General Mladić’s men. 

After the signing of the Dayton peace agreement bringing an end to the war in Bosnia Roberts turns to the constantly deteriorating situation in Kosovo which he visited frequently between 1995 and 1997. Roberts also chronicles his encounters with Milošević following the Serbian local elections in 1996, when allegations of vote rigging let to massive protests against the regime, and his engagement to secure freedom of the opposition media by supporting radio B92 and by bringing in decoders for their use throughout Serbia.

In conclusion he queries whether the failure of the Serbs to sign an agreement at Rambouillet peace conference was pre-ordained to ensure that NATO had a casus belli.

Adis Merdzanovic (St Antony's College, Oxford)

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