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Inside the Mind of Milosevic

A political psychologist explores NATO’s formidable foe

By Aubrey Immelman

MSNBC Contributor

(Originally published May 21, 1999)

    May 21 -- As NATO enters the third month of its air war in Yugoslavia, it finds itself between a rock and a hard place. The rock: Slobodan Milosevic. The hard place: The prospect of interminable bombing with its specter of mounting casualties and the infliction of escalating levels of pain on innocent victims. What began for NATO as a just cause has been degraded to a battle of political wills and a scramble to fabricate a face-saving endgame.

    Milosevic has a formidable psychic arsenal that allows him to mentally outgun most world leaders. And for that reason, he may be better equipped than NATO to emerge as the perceived victor in the pending endgame over Kosovo.


    What moves Milosevic? Warren Zimmermann, U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992, offered 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 aggression.

    Milosevic exhibits extreme grandiosity, self-confidence, and self-absorption to a degree that he is 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."

    For narcissistic leaders, this is par for the course: they focus less on threats to their people and their country than on how situations can best be exploited for self-preservation, self-promotion, and tightening their grip on the reins of power.

    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.

    This paranoid outlook accounts for the insularity and flawed decision-making of leaders such as Milosevic, who surround themselves with a coterie of uncritical advisers who will do their bidding and boost their ego. They serve at the leader’s pleasure and must toe the line. Recently, when deputy prime minister Vuk Draskovic dared to criticize Milosevic’s policies on Kosovo, he was instantly dismissed.

    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. He then reverted to "an even more aggressive approach" by sowing ethnic hatred as a ruse to forging a greater Serbia incorporating the Serbian populations of Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and possibly Macedonia.


    No political analysis of Milosevic can ignore the Serbian national mythology of the noble defeat and the heroic martyr, Prince Lazar, defeated by the Turks June 28,1389, in the Battle of Kosovo Polje. As Zimmermann puts it, "the tragic defect" of the Serbs is an obsession with their own history, which feeds an ethnocentric attitude of blaming everyone but themselves. This national mindset provides Milosevic with a dual weapon in his quest for power. Defensively, his identification with Prince Lazar can feed his dreams of glory. Offensively, he can strategically exploit the self-defeating national myth to sugarcoat the bitterness that he has wrought upon his people.


    Milosevic will likely escape a full accounting for his alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. This will be a major setback for those who supported the war as a moral crusade. An examination of NATO’s five conditions for suspending the air campaign against Yugoslavia, juxtaposed with Slobodan Milosevic’s psychological motives and underlying personality pattern, sheds some light on Milosevic’s possible plans for an endgame.

    Unlike Hitler’s Nazi ideology, which provided a rationale for his treatment of the Jews, Milosevic is not a nationalist, nor does he have a consistent, stable set of core beliefs or deeply held convictions. Personal self-interest is the guiding force in his value system. For Milosevic, with his lack of empathy, people are mere abstractions. Should "ethnic cleansing" serve his aspirations, he will pursue it without compunction. But if it becomes more expedient for purposes of self-preservation to change course, so be it. Stopping the killing is not an issue. All Milosevic needs from NATO is a reason.

    Much has been made of Kosovo’s importance to the Serbian people. It is different from Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, all of which Milosevic gave up, with escalating levels of defiance. Clearly, for Milosevic to retain a following he must be seen to be a champion for Serbian imperatives in Kosovo. Message to NATO: Better to pacify Milosevic, give him political cover by reassuring his constituency that troop withdrawal does not equal the surrender of territorial integrity.

    Milosevic has already achieved his objective of substantially reducing the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo, some of whom will never return. If reports of the systematic extermination of military-age Kosovar males are true, Milosevic has succeeded in diminishing the immediate threat of civil insurrection, thus tightening the Serbian hold on Kosovo. Again, little reason for Milosevic to balk, provided NATO guarantees an orderly repatriation program backed by foreign aid.

    The presence of an international peacekeeping force may actually buttress Milosevic’s position by facilitating an orderly, non-threatening return of ethnic Albanians to Kosovo. Not the least of the benefits of a peacekeeping force to Milosevic will be its protective function as a bulwark against Kosovo Liberation Army insurgency and the nationalistic fervor of ethnic Albanians. Milosevic’s quarrel with NATO is apt to be limited to the size of the force and the extent of NATO’s involvement.

    Granting political autonomy to the Kosovar Albanians merely restores the status quo that existed prior to 1989, when Milosevic exploited Serbian nationalism to further his own rise to power by usurping Kosovo’s governing bodies. His ascent complete, Kosovo can now conveniently be discarded. It is doubtful that Milosevic strongly adheres to the Serbian cultural conception of Kosovo as their ancestral homeland.

    Accordingly, his public rhetoric should not be taken at face value. Milosevic’s words do not convey inherent beliefs; they are strategically crafted to beguile, rally support, and garner public admiration while conveying utter sincerity and trustworthiness. Inconsistencies and course reversals are rationalized as legitimate responses to arising circumstances. At base, Kosovar autonomy is no skin off Milosevic’s nose, provided NATO can render the prospect of self-determination sufficiently palatable for his private political purposes: emerging from the conflict as national hero and undisputed Balkan power broker.


    The biggest cost of a negotiated peace deal for NATO is loss of credibility. A compromise that leaves Milosevic in power will be widely perceived as a victory over the world’s most powerful military alliance by a nation only slightly larger than Kentucky, with a population smaller than that of metropolitan Los Angeles. In addition, Milosevic will likely escape a full accounting for alleged war crimes and gross abuses of human rights. This will be a stinging rebuke for proponents of human rights and a stable world order who supported the war effort only with the implicit understanding that social justice would be served.

    Given NATO’s stated goal of stopping the killing in Kosovo and its implied intent to put despots on notice in the new century, a truce on these terms will constitute a dismal failure in the mission of Operation Allied Force. Having failed to achieve its objectives in Kosovo, the sole recourse for NATO to salvage its credibility is to unseat Milosevic. A hard place, indeed.

See also: "What Moves Milosevic" (Sept. 26, 2000).

Page maintained by Aubrey Immelman

Last updated April 02, 2001