This paper is an economist’s attempt to understand the behaviour of dictators
with special reference to the Milosevic regime in Serbia. The author focuses on
nationalism, ethnic cleansing and war, especially the most recent war with
NATO. The basic argument is simple. First, like any dictator, Milosevic needed
support in order to survive in office. His provocative and warlike actions towards other groups are best understood, not as the latest round in a centuries-old tradition of ethnic fighting, but as the attempt of a competitive politician to survive in a situation where the old basis of power had collapsed. Second, in attempting to survive the wave of democratization that swept Eastern Europe after 1989, Milosevic played a wild card—the nationalist card. Nationalism can be wild because, under some circumstances, it is contagious. Especially when combined with the security dilemma, it can spread uncontrollably. Ethnic cleansing and war are seen in this light as neither deliberate, coldly planned strategies of brutal repression, nor the results of complete miscalculation, but the results of a process in which the leadership of the regime was reacting to events which it may have set in motion, but did not entirely control.