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There's a specter haunting Vladimir Putin -- the specter of Slobodan Milosevic.

As the Ukraine crisis has unfolded, it has become fashionable -- and even a bit of a fetish -- to compare the Kremlin leader to the late Serbian dictator.

Writing recently in "The New Republic," Vera Mironova and Maria Snegovaya noted how Milosevic and Putin "fueled intense nationalism...against Croats and Ukrainians through mass media propaganda" and how each "empowered the uprising of ethnic minorities."

Both also used the pretext of protecting minorities to "engage the military" and "established self-proclaimed, semi-independent republics in both Croatia and Ukraine" that were under the de facto control of Belgrade and Moscow respectively.

"But the resemblance between Putin and Milosevic’s cases is more than just a similarity in tactics -- it embraces the fundamental myths and historical clashes between Serbs and Croats, and Russians and Ukrainians," they wrote.

And it isn't just Putin's critics who are dredging up the Milosevic comparisons. So are his erstwhile allies -- as a cautionary tale.

Angry about the Kremlin's apparent decision not to use overt military force in eastern Ukraine to support pro-Moscow militants, separatist leader Igor Girkin, aka Strelkov, recently warned Putin against "an irreversible step down 'Milosevic's path.'"

Writing on his VKontakte page, Girkin went on to explain that Putin's apparent abandonment of armed groups seeking to form "Novorossia," or "New Russia," in Ukraine, resembled Milosevic's "surrendering" of paramilitaries fighting for a "Greater Serbia" in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in the 1990s.

Milosevic, Girkin wrote, "was later finished off in Kosovo, and finally 'expired' naturally, and tellingly, in The Hague."

The subtext, of course, was that if nationalists turned against Putin over his "betrayal" in Donbas, he would be dangerously vulnerable at home.

LIkewise, the nationalist Mikhail Kalashnikov recently argued that “the Kremlin has lost control over the process” in eastern Ukraine and that as a result, “the uprising in the Donbas could turn into an uprising in Russia."

The meme of the potential for an angry backlash against the Kremlin from jilted nationalists has also been picked up by the mainstream Russian media.

"The Russian authorities have learned how to suppress liberal protests but they are far worse at coping with nationalist and left-wing protests when they are confronted by resolute, desperate people who are prepared for a strong-arm confrontation," the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote in a July 11 editorial.

"The state has not resolved the migration question and this means that Kondopoga, Manezh Square, or Biryulevo could be repeated at any moment.... The Kremlin has absolutely no interest in a left-wing or nationalist protest in Russia being headed by experienced militants."

So how relevant is the Milosevic experience to Putin's fate?

A couple things here. First, the line between Milosevic's abandonment of the "Greater Serbia" project and his fall from power was not a direct one.

Nearly four years passed from the signing of the Dayton Accords, which ended hostilities in Bosnia in December 1995, until Milosevic's fall in October 1999 -- a period in which he weathered the loss of nationalist support, a series of noisy street protests in Belgrade, another war, in Kosovo, and a NATO bombing campaign.

And second, when Milosevic finally went down it was by no means preordained.

Pro-Western liberals and student activists were the most visible participants in the massive demonstrations that followed the flawed 1999 presidential election, and those demonstrations certainly played a role in the Serbian strongman's downfall.

But the death blow was actually dealt behind the scenes and away from the crowds, in the back seat of a Mercedes SUV cruising Belgrade's backstreets.

It was there, according to media reports, where Milorad Lukovic, one of Milosevic's most brutal henchmen, cut a deal with opposition leader Zoran Djindjic, the German-educated darling of the liberals who would later go on to serve as prime minister until his assassination in 2003.

Milosevic had ordered the paramilitary police unit Lukovic commanded, the Red Berets, to open fire on the demonstrators swarming Belgrade's streets and squares. Djindjic reportedly convinced him not to do so, persuading him that Milosevic was finished.

"The hidden power structures in Serbia understood that they could not go any further with Milosevic, so they gave him up, but they wanted certain payoffs," Bratislav Grubacic, a Belgrade-based political analyst, told me back in 2003.

So in the end, it was a combination of a liberal uprising, nationalist disillusionment, and security-service disloyalty that ended the Milosevic era.

Putin could go the same way sometime in the future. But it is just as easy to imagine him hanging on to power -- provided the elite and the security services remain loyal.

And provided he's willing to spill blood.

A 260-page report issued earlier this month -- edited by Kirill Rogov and titled "The Crisis and Transformation of Russian Electoral Authoritarianism" -- argues that the Ukraine crisis was "beyond doubt" a turning point in Russian history. (A big h/t to Paul Goble for flagging it.)

The report's authors argue that “the level of political repressions will only grow,” become more intense, and increasingly become “an inseparable part” of “the political culture” of the Putin regime.

The true Milosevic scenario for Putin could, in fact, turn out to be one in which he managed to hang on to power -- and became even more brutal.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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