Ante Markovic, the last Prime Minister of Yugoslavia died today at the age of 87. From 1989 to 1991, he was seen by many as the last person who could stop the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation and avert war. A darling of liberals, he tried to institute a series of political and economic reforms and to alleviate the rising nationalist discourses and pressures — especially in Croatia and Serbia. His last ditch appeal to the international community and the U.S. for debt reduction and aid failed, so too did his effort to avert war. He left political life and with the exception of a brief appearance at the Milosevic trial in 2003, he remained completely outside of public view.

A few years ago I saw him eating alone in the dingy, over-priced, communist-era restaurant of the Grand Hotel in Sarajevo. It was a depressing scene. The restaurant was empty and, although Markovic was well dressed — in a suit and tie — it was striking to see how old, frail, and alone he was. I approached him and talked to him for several minutes. He was not interested in discussing what he had done since the war, and our conversation drifted to the last two years of his premiership, how he was unable to contain Milosevic and Tudjman, and how the forces of disintegration got out ahead of him. After our conversation, I retreated to the bar and asked the bartender if he knew who Markovic was.

As I recall, my conversation with the bartender went something like this:

“Yes, of course, we all know Mr. Markovic. He lives here at the hotel when he’s in Sarajevo on business. Usually several weeks at a time.”

“Lives here?” “On business?” I asked.

“Yes,” replied the bartender,” he’s heavily involved in a number of businesses throughout the Balkans — energy conglomerates — he’s post-socialist rich. I’m guessing the businesses are corrupt — all deal with government contracts, so they must be. That’s how all those guys do it. He flies home to Austria on the weekends. I don’t get why people feel sorry for him. He’s done OK for himself.”

It is often difficult to understand what’s really going on in the Balkans and one has to be very careful not to judge people or their situation too quickly. That evening in the Grand Hotel I saw a tired, lonely, frail, former leader going on at some length lamenting his failure to avert disaster for his people. The next morning I saw Markovic walking swiftly though the hotel lobby with a Blackberry to his ear and I watched his chauffeur hold the door open for him as he got into a shiny new Mercedes and whisk him off to the airport for his flight home to Graz, Austria.

It’s still unclear to me which of these impressions — perhaps both — best capture who Ante Markovic was. But, I gather he had done OK for himself.

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