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What Moves Milosevic?

By Aubrey Immelman

September 26, 2000

    What moves Milosevic? Warren Zimmermann, U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992, offers an insightful first-hand account of Milosevic in a 1995 article in the journal Foreign Affairs. In it, three central character traits emerge in the political personality of Slobodan Milosevic: cynicism about democratic principles and institutions, mendacity, and avoidance of personal responsibility for aggressive actions.

    Zimmermann’s characterization points to the syndrome of malignant narcissism, originated by psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg and widely embraced by political psychologists to take the measure of leaders who pose a threat to regional stability and world order. The core components of the syndrome are pathological narcissism, antisocial features, paranoid traits, and unconstrained aggression.

    Milosevic exhibits extreme grandiosity, self-confidence, and self-absorption to a degree that renders him quite incapable of empathizing with the pain and suffering of others. Zimmermann writes that he has never seen Milosevic "moved by an individual case of human suffering," nor heard him "say a charitable or generous word about any human being, not even a Serb." That lack of empathy makes it possible, in Zimmerman’s view, for Milosevic to condone, encourage, and even organize unspeakable atrocities.

    Although malignant narcissists are not as unscrupulous as full-blown psychopathic deviants, their tenuous social conscience is governed primarily by self-interest. Zimmermann writes that Milosevic is "driven by power rather than nationalism," but that he "made a Faustian pact with nationalism as a way to gain and hold power." And, Zimmermann observes, "Milosevic-style nationalism has proven singularly resistant to economic inducement, penalties, or any other pressures short of force." Lacking a consistent, stable set of core beliefs or deeply held convictions, Milosevic’s appeals to Serbian nationalist sentiments serve merely as a cynical, self-promoting ruse to rally the troops.

    Behind a grandiose facade, malignant narcissists harbor a siege mentality. They fail to recognize their own role in creating foes and invoke real or imagined enemies to justify aggressive acts. In October 1991, when the Yugoslav army shelled the medieval Croatian town of Dubrovnik -- an action with no apparent military objective -- Milosevic disingenuously told Zimmermann that foreign mercenaries had been hiding in the city. Milosevic will likely conjure up new threats to national security in his face-off with Kostunica.

    Behind the public mask of civility and idealistic concern, malignant narcissists are cold, ruthless, cynically calculating, ambitious self-promoters. Zimmermann was astounded by Milosevic’s affable manner, noting that his "cherubic cheeks do not fit the strongman image." Milosevic, he says, "makes a stunning first impression," yet is "ambitious and ruthless," an opportunist who rose to the leadership of the Serbian Communist Party by betraying his mentor, Ivan Stambolic. Zimmermann notes that in the late 1980s Milosevic first tried to consolidate his power by preserving Yugoslav unity, but "became the major wrecker of Yugoslavia" when he realized that the strength of the Slovenian and Croatian independence movements could not be checked by military force.

    In the latest power struggle in the Balkans, the bottom line is this: Personal self-interest is the guiding force that drives Milosevic. In this light, there is no plausible scenario in which Milosevic will willingly relinquish political power. His personality profile suggest that, rather than go quietly in the face of defeat, Milosevic will use all means at his disposal to hang on to power. If cornered, he may take his own life rather than surrender.

See also: "Inside the Mind of Milosevic" (Sept. 26, 2000).

Related article: "Milosevic is stubborn under pressure: U.S. profile suggests Serb leader won’t bow out quietly" by Robert Windrem (NBC News), Oct. 5, 2000. (link expired)

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated April 02, 2001