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.

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