Slobodan Milosevic

Ruthlessly brutal Serbian leader who presided over the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia
Click to follow

Slobodan Milosevic, banker and politician: born Pozarevac, Yugoslavia 20 August 1941; Deputy Director, Tehnogas Co 1960-73, Director-General 1973-78; Head, Belgrade Information Service 1966-69; President, Beogradska Banka 1978-83; President of Serbia 1989-1997; President of Yugoslavia 1997-2000; married 1965 Mira Markovic (one son, one daughter); died The Hague 11 March 2006.

When the end came, Slobodan Milosevic was an almost forgotten figure, listening to his favourite Frank Sinatra and Celine Dion CDs in the cell where he had been a prisoner of the International War Crimes Tribunal since 2001, and "mister president" only to a clutch of fellow Serbs themselves facing trial for war crimes in The Hague. There was little drama to the last days and months in court, punctuated as they were by his increasing bouts of ill health. Indeed, it was increasingly hard to identify the portly, white-haired old gentleman with the terrifying demagogue who in the 1980s and 1990s seemed to hold the fate of the Balkans in his thrall.

The apotheosis of Slobodan Milosevic came on a burning hot day in June 1989, St Vitus Day, when, at the celebrations commemorating the 600th anniversary of the battle of Kosovo, he addressed a million of his countrymen on the field of Gazimestan. This, the site where the invading Turks had vanquished the Serbian Prince Lazar, was for Serbs hallowed ground. Standing on the dais, surrounded by black-robed hierarchs of the Serbian Orthodox Church and highly uncomfortable- looking officials from the other Yugoslav republics, Milosevic seemed to hold Serbia in the palm of his hand and the rest of Yugoslavia on tenterhooks. Serbia, he said, had until now succeeded in bettering its position within Yugoslavia by peaceful means, without war. But armed conflict, he warned, could not be ruled out in the future.

Within two years he had fulfilled his own prediction. After his strident Serbian nationalism drove three Yugoslav republics - Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia - to secede in 1991, and Bosnia-Herzegovina followed in 1992, Yugoslavia was at war. Most Serbs ardently believed that Milosevic was fighting for the rights of the Serb minorities in the newly independent republics. The outside world saw only a struggle for a greater Serbia. The irony was that, for all the talk of a Serb resurrection, the Serbs under Milosevic were rarely more incompetently led in battle. After overrunning much of Croatia and Bosnia in 1991 and 1992, they suffered the supreme ignominy in 1995 of seeing the once-despised Croats seize much of the territory back. Milosevic's wars were also marked by an astonishing degree of brutality that left Serbia an international pariah.

After thousands perished in Croatia, at least a hundred thousand died in Bosnia. But when the subject of Serbia's murderous paramilitary groups was brought up by international mediators, Milosevic always shrugged and said he knew nothing. No one doubted that the brutal actions of these tools of the Serbian state were authorised by its leader. But it was not Croatia, nor even Bosnia, that finally enshrined his reputation as a man of blood. It was Kosovo, and the war he unleashed on the rebellious Albanians of Serbia's southern province, whom he had stripped of their autonomy in 1989. Kosovo had brought him to power. It was the issue that came to haunt him.

Milosevic was a child of the Second World War, born in 1941 in the little town of Pozarevac, in central Serbia. His father, Svetozar, was a deacon in the Orthodox Church. His mother, Stanislava, a schoolmistress, became an ardent supporter of Tito's Communists, then fighting Yugoslavia's German invaders. His parents separated soon after he and his brother were born. Both subsequently committed suicide, his father in 1962 and his mother in 1974.

Milosevic found solace from an unhappy childhood in his childhood playmate, Mirjana ("Mira") Markovic, whom he would marry in 1965. She also came from an unusual home. Her mother, Vera Miletic, had been a Partisan, shot in 1942. Brought up by her aunt, one of Tito's confidantes and supposedly his mistress, Mira belonged to the privileged Communist élite that Tito's one-time ally turned opponent, Milovan Djilas, dubbed "the new class".

After studying Law at Belgrade University, Milosevic began his slow, steady ascent through the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. Apart from his wife's excellent party connections, Milosevic profited enormously from his close friendship with Ivan Stambolic, another child of the Communist élite and a rising star within the party's Serbian branch. Each time Stambolic moved from one position to another, Milosevic followed in his wake, running the state gas company Tehnogas before moving to the Serbian state bank, Beobanka.

When Stambolic moved to the top of the party, Milosevic followed again, becoming President of the Serbian League of Communists when Stambolic became President of Serbia in 1986. Stambolic had already established himself as a determined, but moderate, champion of Serbian national grievances on the subject of Kosovo. Tito's partisans had fought hard to reclaim this desperately poor region for Yugoslavia in 1945, after four years of union with Albania under Italian protection. To sweeten the pill for Kosovo's unhappy Albanian majority, who detested the prospect of a return to Serbian rule, he granted Kosovo autonomy, which was greatly increased under the new Yugoslav constitution of 1974. The Serbs resented this loss of control over their ancestral land and after Tito died in 1980 began to agitate for Kosovo's autonomy to be trimmed or abolished.

In Kosovo, Milosevic spied his chance to betray and overtake his patron. Hurrying down on 27 April 1987 to the suburb of Kosovo Polje, not far from the famous Gazimestan, he told a group of Serbian demonstrators complaining of harassment at the hands of the local Albanian police that "no one has the right to beat you". The remark might have gone unnoticed had Milosevic's allies in Serbian television not filmed him and broadcast the clip on the main news programme that evening.

The speech at Kosovo Polje turned Milosevic into a national hero, while Stambolic was embarrassed. Too late, he discovered that Milosevic had quietly inserted his own men into key positions in the Serbian party and the media, who, as one, immediately began a campaign for Stambolic's removal. The rallies then held all over Serbia in Milosevic's support fused Serb nationalist and Communist sentiments in a style that was totally without precedent in Yugoslavia. Never since the Communists took power in 1945 had a party leader of any of the six federal republics played the once forbidden nationalist card so openly. Nor had the media ever been harnessed to the nationalist cause so flagrantly.

The party leaders of Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia complained bitterly at this transgression of all the old taboos, but to no effect. The delirium in Serbia produced by the rallies was all-conquering. At the Serbian party plenum of September 1987 Milosevic swept all before him. Stambolic resigned three months later, to be replaced by one of Milosevic's ciphers.

The conquest of the Serbian party was only the start. Once in power, Milosevic continued to orchestrate huge rallies over the Kosovo issue throughout Serbia, attempting to export his revolution to the rest of Yugoslavia. A huge demonstration in the northern city of Novi Sad forced out the leadership of the province of Vojvodina in December 1988. Soon after, protests forced out the leaders of the republic of Montenegro.

Azem Vlassi, the ethnic Albanian leader of the party in Kosovo, resisted the enormous pressure generated by the rallies to resign. But Milosevic was undaunted, and browbeat the other republics into agreeing to send federal troops and police into the province. Cowed, Vlassi finally quit, to be arrested on charges of "counter-revolutionary nationalism and separatism". In March 1989, Milosevic presided over a victorious session of the Serbian parliament, which proclaimed the re-absorption of both Kosovo and Vojvodina into Serbia. Three months later, he headed down to receive the thanks of a grateful nation at Gazimestan.

By 1990 Milosevic controlled four of the eight units of the Yugoslav federation and seemed within an inch of extending his control over Serbia to the rest of Yugoslavia. But the rallies and the shrill nationalism of the Serbian media exposed the limits of Milosevic's popularity. By basing his appeal on narrow Serbian chauvinism, rather than a broader Yugoslav nationalism, Milosevic united the Serbs at the price of alienating everyone else. Indeed, he managed the rare feat of rallying anti-Communist Croats and Slovenes to the side of their own Communist leaderships.

Thwarted, Milosevic put pressure on the eight-man federal presidency to declare emergency rule throughout Yugoslavia, which would have placed all the republics under the control of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. But fear of both Serbia - and of the army - united Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia against him.

In 1991 Slovenia and Croatia broke the impasse within Yugoslavia by seceding. Milosevic practically ignored the departure of the Slovenes, whose small republic had no significant Serbian minority. Not so Croatia, where the 12 per cent Serb minority gave Milosevic and his allies in the army the opportunity to embroil themselves in a war to defend what they saw as Serbia's national interest.

Pouring in regular troops and paramilitaries to shore up the ethnic Serb bastion in Croatia's mountainous Krajina region, the Serbs overran a third of the republic, driving tens of thousands from their homes and at the same time flattening the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar. True to character, the secretive and reclusive Serbian leader rarely showed his face in public during the fighting in Croatia, although his formidable negotiating skills - promising everything, doing nothing - consistently wrongfooted the international peace negotiators Lord Carrington and David (later Lord) Owen.

In spite of isolated calls in the West for military action, especially following the encirclement and bombardment of the city of Dubrovnik, Serbia successfully retained its third of Croatia's territory, which was placed under the control of a nominally independent authority, the Serb Republic of Krajina.

Milosevic applied the same ruthless tactics when Bosnia seceded in spring 1992. But this time the scale of fighting was larger and the carnage correspondingly more horrific. At least 10,000 died in Croatia before the January 1992 ceasefire. In Bosnia the figure was at least 100,000 and the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims gave rise to a new expression, "ethnic cleansing".

Again, Milosevic was scarcely visible in the conflict and invariably professed his puzzlement over the carnage in his talks with international peace negotiators. But no one doubted that he was the author and mastermind of the entire conflict and the manner in which it was conducted.

Although the Serbs overran an enormous amount of territory in Bosnia and Croatia, the wars tested Milosevic's strategic abilities. In both conflicts, his local Serbian clients became insubordinate and, much to Milosevic's fury, wrecked the chances of favourable settlements by holding out for more territory than they could possibly get. In consequence, Milosevic's truncated Yugoslavia was placed under international sanctions that sapped what was left of its economic strength and chipped away at Milosevic's own popularity.

Milosevic's rift with the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs showed just how ruthless he could be to fellow Serbs. When Nato finally decided to bomb the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table in the summer of 1995, Milosevic ignored their plight, even as a Croatian army overran his puppet state in the Croatian Krajina, swept on into Serb-held Bosnia and triggered the flight to Serbia of several hundred thousands of Serb refugees.

Instead, Milosevic drew comfort from the subsequent Bosnian peace settlement hammered out at Dayton, Ohio, where he posed - and was treated by the world - as the great arbiter of the Balkans who could "deliver" a Serbian agreement.

The wars ruined Serbia. For all his past experience as a banker, Milosevic proved a disastrous economist. In the early Nineties, he had illegally helped himself to the reserves of the Yugoslav national bank to bankroll his military projects. At a stroke, he saddled the whole of Yugoslavia with hyperinflation. By the end of the decade, most sectors of industry, including the once prosperous agricultural sector, were at a standstill. The country was starved of foreign investment and the international sanctions he had hoped to see removed at Dayton remained in place, owing to growing Western worries about Kosovo.

It was Kosovo that now came back to haunt him. By 1997 the province's two million Albanians had endured almost a decade of oppression coupled with the humiliation of seeing all Yugoslavia's other constituent nations emerge into independent states. For most of the decade those frustrations were contained by Ibrahim Rugova's Democratic League of Kosovo, a non-violent party that preached passive resistance to Serbian rule. But in the spring of 1998 a new group that spurned Rugova's tactics, the Kosovo Liberation Army, organised an insurrection that spread rapidly across the province.

Milosevic responded with the ruthless brutality that had become his trademark, pouring special police units and paramilitaries into the province and burning down villages where the rebels were based. This time the Western powers were resolved not to repeat those delays that were widely blamed for encouraging Milosevic to proceed with his offensives in Croatia and Bosnia. As a result, Milosevic was simply ordered to consent to an interim agreement whereby Serbia would withdraw some of its forces from Kosovo while the Kosovars were warned not to expect any recognition of their independence.

As the conflict worsened, both Serbs and Albanians were summoned in February 1999 to Rambouillet, near Paris, to be presented with a deal envisaging an autonomous Kosovo within Serbia, to be policed by an external force run by Nato. Faced with an uncompromising Nato, Milosevic did not even bother to attend the talks. Instead, the policy of burning villages and expelling Kosovar Albanians was stepped up, massively so after Nato began air strikes on Yugoslavia on 24 March. By the end of the month, as more than 400,000 refugees streamed out of the province, bringing reports of murder, arson and robbery, Europe faced its biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Milosevic was a great poker player. He had a gift for detecting weakness in his opponents and for wrong-footing both enemies and negotiators. But he was seen by those who met him as cunning, rather than intelligent, and, if he had any other strategy other than remaining in power for as long as possible, it was never evident what it was. In the end even his gambling skills failed him, as he led Serbia into a war with Nato it could not possibly hope to win.

The President used his grip on the media to present the enforced withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo in June 1999 as another triumph. Kosovo had been lost but Serbia proper saved from foreign occupation. But the public was not deceived, and the flight northwards of most of Kosovo's Serbs, fleeing ahead of the returning Albanians, led to a growing fusion between Milosevic's nationalist and liberal opponents.

Unlike Tito, Milosevic had no taste for the high life. Tito had been famous for the vulgar splendour of his court, which was directly modelled on that of the royal regime he had supplanted. Milosevic liked whisky and the same big cigars that Tito had smoked, but there was no return to the glitter - and the tat - of the Tito era. He was fiercely loyal to Mira, and mistresses were out of the question. Tito had loved hunting bears and wild boar in the forests on the Romanian border. Milosevic was never seen holding a gun - or going on a country walk. Tito loved to dress up in military uniforms. Milosevic was always in a blue or grey suit.

He jealously guarded his private life with Mira and their two children and divided his time between the President's official residence in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje and the family's villa in the forests of eastern Serbia. He appeared to have no hobbies, no friends and no intellectual tastes whatever. The Milosevics did not entertain.

Mira was no Imelda Marcos either. Her clothing style and hairdos seemed not to have changed since the Seventies and until middle age she often sported a curious plastic flower in her thick, dyed black hair, which made her resemble an old-fashioned folk singer. As a convinced Marxist and feminist, Mira would, in any case, have scorned the Hollywood-style glamour of Tito's wife, Jovanka.

During Milosevic's last 18 months in power he retreated to the bunker and lost his once famous ability to play on the heart-strings of the nation. Kosovo was one defeat too many. He had come to power over Kosovo; he was to lose power over it now.

The elections he called on 24 September 2000 were a massive strategic error and, as the news came in of a landslide victory by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, for once neither he nor his advisers seemed to have any idea of what to do. Like many dictators, Milosevic had tasted huge popularity only to end up a reviled and despised figure. The second round of voting on 8 October never came. After a wave of strikes swept the country, on 5 October huge crowds in Belgrade stormed the federal parliament building, setting it alight, and as police and army stood idly by, it was clear that Milosevic's years in power were over.

Feverish predictions in the local and foreign media of a Romanian-style bloodbath that would see the Milosevics go the way of Nicolae and Elena Ceaucescu proved wide of the mark. Instead, the couple retreated undisturbed to the presidential residence in Uzicka street. It was only in the following spring, on 21 March 2001, that the police finally arrested Milosevic and on 28 June - St Vitus Day and the anniversary of his famous speech at Gazimestan - that they bundled him off unceremoniously to The Hague, the first head of state to face trial for genocide.

Milosevic's last years in court formed a curious anticlimax to almost everything that had preceded them. Although he was initially the star of the Hague court room, foreign reporters lost interest when it became clear that a case containing many separate indictments would drag on for years. In Serbia, the trial similarly slipped from public gaze after a few months. Dogged by ill health and separated from his family, he had become a marginal figure in Serbia by the time death overcame him.

Milosevic had adopted several poses in his political lifetime. Initially putting himself forward as a technocrat, he then presented himself as a man of iron who would save Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia declined salvation on the terms he offered, he reinvented himself as the godfather of a new, greater Serbia. He failed miserably in all three guises. The supposed technocrat left an economy in ruins and a nation impoverished. The saviour of Yugoslavia presided over Yugoslavia's implosion into five separate states. The greater Serbia project ended ignominiously, with the loss of Kosovo and the contraction of Serbia's borders almost to their 1878 Congress of Berlin limits.

Serbia is no longer the pariah state that it was when Milosevic left office. But the legacy of his years at the helm in terms of the mutual estrangement of Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians will continue to haunt the region for generations.

Marcus Tanner