Ivan Stambolic

Mentor of Milosevic stabbed in the back by his protégé

Saturday 29 March 2003 01:00
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Ivan Stambolic, politician and businessman: born Brezova, Yugoslavia 5 November 1936; Prime Minister of Serbia 1975-79; Chairman, Belgrade City Committee, League of Communists 1982-84; President, League of Communists of Serbia 1984-86; President of Serbia 1986-87; Director, Yugoslav Bank for International Economic Co-operation 1988-97; married 1962 Katarina Zivojinovic (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died c 25 August 2000.

It was one of the bitter ironies of late 20th-century Balkan politics that Ivan Stambolic, a leading advocate of compromise and inter-racial tolerance, did more than anyone else to help the rise to power of a man whose brand of Serbian nationalism triggered the old Yugoslavia's collapse and a decade of bloody conflict across several ex-Yugoslav republics – Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic repaid his closest friend and mentor by stabbing him in the back. In a palace revolution which took place within Serbia's Communist establishment in 1987, Stambolic was removed from the post of President and consigned to the political wilderness at the age of 51.

Thirteen years later Stambolic's friends were to accuse Milosevic of being behind the ex-President's mysterious abduction just a month before the Yugoslav presidential elections of September 2000 which finally brought about Milosevic's own downfall. They pointed an accusing finger at the secret police, arguing that the increasingly critical Stambolic had become an embarrassment – and possibly even a potential rival – to the beleaguered President as he faced defeat in the presidential contest.

They were proved right when two and a half years later, at the end of March 2003, Serbian police finally located Stambolic's remains in a disused pit 60 kilometres north of Belgrade. He had been shot twice. Four members of the recently disbanded Red Berets – the élite police force established under Milosevic – were arrested in connection with the murder.

By the time of his death, Stambolic showed no signs of having any political ambitions – and Milosevic eventually suffered a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Vojislav Kostunica, the opposition candidate to whom Stambolic gave his support. That support – from an ex-comrade – perhaps unnerved the Milosevic regime. Besides, Stambolic's biting criticism of Milosevic's nationalist adventure was all the more relevant following the humiliation of Serbia's withdrawal from Kosovo, the birthplace of the Serbian nationalism of the 1980s, after the Nato bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

"We were trying to untie the Kosovo knot together with the Kosovo Albanians," Stambolic said years after he and his policy of dialogue were swept away by Milosevic's nationalism. "Others cut it with a sword, thereby tying themselves and us into thousands of new knots – rolling headlong from one defeat into another."

The man who was later to be dubbed by some the "Serbian Pygmalion" and by others the "Serbian Frankenstein" for creating the Milosevic phenomenon, was born into a humble background in the village of Brezova, south-west of Belgrade, in 1936. After training at an industrial school he found employment as a metal worker. While still in work, he enrolled as a mature student at the law faculty of Belgrade university. It was at the faculty in the early 1960s that Stambolic first encountered Milosevic, five years his junior, beginning a friendship that became so close that he used to say afterwards that Milosevic "was like a brother to me".

After graduation, Stambolic made his way swiftly through the top managerial and political posts within the Serbian Communist nomenklatura in the second half of the 1960s. He became director of Technogas, the state energy company, and then chairman of the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce. In 1975 – a year after Marshal Tito's last constitution which devolved considerable powers to Yugoslavia's six republics and two autonomous provinces – Stambolic was appointed Prime Minister of Serbia.

Stambolic's success was due, in part, to his professional competence and, in part, to his extensive experience and contacts across industry and commerce. Last, but by no means least, he was the nephew of Petar Stambolic, a wartime partisan leader, who had subsequently become one of Tito's most senior lieutenants and was Yugoslavia's federal Prime Minister in the mid-1960s when he helped the young Stambolic's career take off.

After Tito's death in 1980 Ivan Stambolic became one of the leading representatives of the new generation of politician-technocrats who owed their achievements to their qualifications and skills and not to their wartime experience in the Communist partisan movement alongside Tito. In 1984 he was elected President of the Serb League (Party) of Communists and two years later President of Serbia's collective presidency.

Stambolic was a reliable, disciplined official who could be ruthless in carrying out the party line – albeit at a time when the ruling establishment in Serbia was becoming increasingly liberal and tolerant of dissent, second only within Yugoslavia to its counterpart in Slovenia.

He was also generous and loyal to his friends – no more so than in the case of Milosevic, his closest confidant. The two families spent holidays together. Always a step behind Stambolic on the promotion ladder, Milosevic benefited enormously from this friendship. When Stambolic took over the leadership of the Serb League of Communists in 1984, he entrusted Milosevic with the top job in the Belgrade City Communist apparatus; and when he transferred to the presidency in 1986, he ensured that – as on previous occasions – Milosevic succeeded him in his old job.

Yet in little more than a year, Stambolic was to find out, as he put it later, that Milosevic was "a good servant but a bad master". As Serb nationalism began to re-emerge, partly in response to complaints from Kosovar Serbs about intimidation and harassment at the hands of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, in April 1987 Stambolic sent Milosevic to the Serbian stronghold of Kosovo Polje to conciliate the local Serbs. Instead, Milosevic discovered the intensity of Serb nationalism and its potential to propel him into power.

Milosevic became the first prominent Communist official to embrace the Serb nationalist agenda. Six months after his visit to Kosovo he used his new-found popularity as well as his strength within the party apparatus to sack Dragisa Pavlovic, the Belgrade City party boss, who along with Stambolic continued to call for dialogue and compromise over Kosovo. Within weeks Milosevic hatched a plot, in which Belgrade City party delegates accused Stambolic of having attempted to put pressure on them to support Pavlovic. Confronted with this "evidence", the Serbian leadership – by now safely under Milosevic's control – launched an all-out attack against Stambolic, who was forced to resign as President in December 1987.

With his political life buried under the nationalist avalanche, Stambolic was appointed President of the Yugoslav Bank for International Economic Co-operation. The bank, established by companies from the various Yugoslav republics to promote exports, was badly hit in 1991-92 by the collapse of the old Yugoslavia and the imposition of UN sanctions on what remained of the Yugoslav federation – Serbia and Montenegro. It was only after the wartime sanctions were lifted in 1996 that Stambolic began to put the bank back on its feet. But he was forced out the following year, apparently under pressure from Milosevic, who wanted the rump Yugoslavia to take over the bank's assets.

In semi-retirement Stambolic worked as a consultant who, using his extensive network of contacts across the former Yugoslav republics, introduced potential business partners to each other. He was open-minded, full of energy and a good listener who signalled his disagreement always in a polite and fashion. He would have made an ideal goodwill ambassador when Belgrade began restoring its relations with the former Yugoslav republics after the end of the Milosevic regime.

Stambolic remained in many ways a true "Yugoslav" who never came close even to the acceptable face of Serbian nationalism represented by some of the democratic leaders, such as Kostunica, who beat Milosevic and his party in the elections of 2000. Back in the mid-1990 he had already shown considerable courage in visiting Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, then under siege from Bosnian Serb separatists, when he was mobbed in the streets by locals, regardless of their ethnic background.

One of those who accompanied him on the trip, Zarko Korac – who became Serbia's deputy Prime Minister in the post-Milosevic administration – said that Stambolic reached true political maturity after he had been removed from the leadership.

Gabriel Partos

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