How a Yugoslav communist became a Serb nationalist

Michael Evstafiev/AFP/Getty Images

In my last post, I outlined four mysteries surrounding Ratko Mladic that need to be resolved in order to explain the atrocities he committed during the 1992-95 Bosnia war. My first question — How did a man indoctrinated in the Titoist ideology of “brotherhood and unity” turn into a Serb nationalist waging brutal war against his neighbors? — may be the easiest to answer.

First, a little background. Prior to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, Mladic had served with distinction in what was then known as the “Yugoslav People’s Army” for 26 years. Trained as an infantry officer, he passed political loyalty tests with flying colors, rising to the rank of colonel. He described himself as a Yugoslav (literally a “South Slav”) in responses to official questionnaires, not as a Serb. People who knew him at the time say that he never talked about “Serbdom,” the “Serbian military tradition,” or “Serbian interests.” If he was a closet nationalist, it was very well disguised.

In explaining Mladic’s ideological transformation, it helps to know a little bit about the nature of the regime he served. During his final years in power, the legendary Marshal Tito became the West’s favorite Communist leader. He refused to accept orders from Moscow and developed his own brand of communism, based on the utopian idea of “workers’ self-management.” A bon vivant himself, he encouraged his people to share in the good life (made possible by large western loans), and permitted them freedom of travel.

Beneath this liberal façade, however, the Titoist system was based on the hard-baked Communist principles of class divisions and “us versus them.” In order to consolidate and maintain his power, Tito fought an uncompromising war against his political enemies, both at home and abroad. The prison camp at Goli Otok (“Naked Island”) in the Adriatic resembled camps in the Soviet gulag. (The Bosnian leader, Alija Izetbegovic, was one of the early inmates.) Tito’s followers developed a siege mentality that was particularly pronounced in the army, the inner bastion of the regime.

To read the full blog post on Foreign Policy, click here.

Mladic and the boy in the video

Izudin Alic was eight years old when he met Ratko Mladic outside the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping battalion in Srebrenica.  Staging an elaborate propaganda show for the television cameras, the 53-year-old Bosnian Serb commander picked out a cherubic-looking boy from the crowd, and patted him twice on the cheek.  Then he asked his age.

“Twelve,” lied Izudin in a squeaky voice, trying to appear more grown up than he actually was.

I met Izudin during my recent trip to Srebrenica.  He is now 25, and only has hazy memories of that terrible day, seventeen years ago, when Bosnian Serb forces embarked on their killing spree against men and boys who had taken refuge in the United Nations “safe area.”  Izudin’s father, Sahzet, was among some 8,000 Muslim refugees who were hunted down and  killed by Mladic’s men.

Izudin returned to his native village of Prohici, just outside Srebrenica, soon after the end of the war along with surviving members of his family, including his mother.  He watched the opening of the Mladic trial in The Hague on television, trying to make sense of the moment when he was briefly thrust into the media spotlight.  He recalls rushing to the front of the crowd of refugees when Bosnian Serb soldiers began distributing candy and chocolates for the benefit of the television cameras.

“I was there when the children were taking the candy,” he recalled.  “Like the other children, I took some candy from the soldiers and ate it.  Had I known about the crimes that were being committed, I would never have accepted the candy.”

To read the full blog post on Foreign Policy, click here.