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How Milosevic Hangs On

1.

Of all of Europe’s current leaders Slobodan Milosevic is the greatest enigma. Who else, in our generation, has gone to war to “save” his people and ended with such great catastrophes, whether in Croatia, Bosnia, or Kosovo? Who else has presided over such a dramatic destruction of his country’s economy and the vilification of the once good name of his people? And yet Milosevic continues to rule, with no apparent regrets, as the duly elected leader of his country. How has he managed to do so and how long can he go on?

Slobodan Milosevic was born in 1941 in the little town of Pozarcvac close to Belgrade. His parents were recent immigrants from Montenegro. Svetozar Milosevic, his father, had studied to be an Orthodox priest but became a teacher instead. We know little about the life of the Milosevic family except that it was not happy. Soon after the war Svetozar returned to Montenegro where, in 1962, he committed suicide. Slobodan and his elder brother were raised by their mother, Stanislava, a Communist schoolteacher who is said to have had puritanical views; in 1972, she also committed suicide.

According to the untranslated and unofficial biography of Milosevic by Slavoljub Djukic, young Slobodan was regarded as “untypical” in the town where he grew up. He was “not interested in sports, avoided excursions, and used to come to school dressed in the old fashioned way—white shirt and tie.” He “preached” to his classmates that they were not suitably dressed. He was regarded as a “restrained and diligent pupil.” Djukic quotes one of Milosevic’s old school friends as saying that he “could imagine him as a stationmaster or punctilious civil servant.”1

If he had not found the right woman, Milosevic might well have become a stationmaster. At school he fell in love with Mira Markovic, who came from a distinguished Communist and Partisan family; she told her friends that her Slobodan would one day be as glorious a leader as Comrade Tito himself. Mira used her connections to push her man forward and he began the long march through the Communist institutions in which he made his career. At Belgrade University he headed the ideology section of its Communist Party branch. There the couple met with another ambitious young Communist, Ivan Stambolic, the nephew of one of the grandees of Serbian politics. As Ivan made his way upward, he hauled his friend Slobodan along with him, always one step behind.

In 1968 Milosevic got a job in the Tehnogas company, where Ivan was already working. In 1973 he became its head. One day, about this time, Milosevic was at a meeting in the office of Belgrade’s mayor when Borka Vucic, a woman who worked for Beobanka, one of Yugoslavia’s biggest banks, paid a working visit with a colleague. She told her: “Watch that man.”

Milosevic soon came to work at Beobanka, and by 1978 was its head. He traveled to New York and Paris and other places on Beobanka business, but his real job was that of a political and financial fixer, the man who could arrange financing for the projects favored by Party leaders. The technical banking know-how was supplied by Borka Vucic. When she returned from trips abroad, the same colleague told me, she “always made sure that she had bought a present for Mira.” The colleague added: “In my time I saw many presidents of Beobanka, but the only one who was not on the take and who never had affairs was Milosevic.”

By 1984 Milosevic, making the most of his position at Beobanka, was moving into national politics. In 1986 he became head of Serbia’s Communist Party. In 1987 Stambolic, now president of Serbia, sent him south to hear the grievances of Kosovo’s Serbs. The Serb leaders argued, with some justification, that they were discriminated against in what was then an autonomous province of Serbia run by its ethnic Albanian majority, who outnumbered the Serbs there by nine to one.

The story has often been told how Milosevic then seized on the Kosovo issue to whip up the pent-up nationalist forces that were to rip his country to pieces. Making the restoration of Serbian domination of Kosovo an emotional popular cause, he forced out of power the Communists who hesitated to accept his authority. By 1989 Milosevic had gotten rid of Ivan Stambolic and was the undisputed master of Serbia and its president. But it was not enough. He wanted to rule all of Yugoslavia and unsurprisingly the other Yugoslavs, apart from the Serbs and their brother Montenegrins, rejected him. As they say here: Resultat znamo—We know the result.

Nearly ten years ago, in November 1988, Milosevic told a rally of hundreds of thousands of adoring supporters, intoxicated by his nationalistic euphoria, that this was “no time for sorrow.” It was, he said, “a time for struggle.”

We entered both world wars with nothing but the conviction that we would fight for freedom, and we won both wars…. We shall win the battle for Kosovo regardless of the obstacles facing us inside and outside the country. We shall win despite the fact that Serbia’s enemies outside the country are plotting against it, along with those in the country. We tell them that we enter every battle with the aim of winning it.2

2.

What is especially fascinating about Milosevic is that almost every battle he enters he eventually loses. He failed to gain control of the whole of the former Yugoslavia. He failed to create a Greater Serbia including the Serbian population in Croatia and Bosnia. When the old Yugoslavia collapsed with the departure of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Macedonia, Milosevic put together a new one consisting of Serbia (including Kosovo, control of which was taken over by Milosevic’s police) and Montenegro. Serbia’s population is some 10.5 million while Montenegro’s population is 650,000. Today this “new” Yugoslavia is tottering. By mid-June, more than 60,000 people had been driven from their homes because of the war in Kosovo, and there was no sign that the ethnic Albanians there were willing to submit to Milosevic’s rule. Montenegro, for its part, has done what it was never supposed to do. In a recent election, it has demanded the equal rights that it is entitled to under the Yugoslav constitution. On May 31 a majority of Montenegrins voted against a pro-Milosevic party and for a coalition supported by the Montenegrin president Milo Djukanovic, a thirty-six-year-old former Milosevic loyalist who turned against his former patron and argued that Yugoslavia’s only chance of survival was to get rid of him.

When Djukanovic first came out against Milosevic in December 1996, he was prime minister of Montenegro and Milosevic was still president of Serbia. (He became president of Yugoslavia last July.) In the streets of Belgrade and other cities, huge demonstrations were then taking place against Milosevic. His Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) had overturned the results of several of the municipal elections held in November 1996, stealing votes in order to win. Opposition parties seized on the issue to mobilize support, and a few of Milosevic’s former allies, such as Djukanovic, were willing to openly oppose him.

For eighty-eight days hundreds of thousands of Serbs marched in towns and cities across the country. It was a form of catharsis. Most of the demonstrators—including university students and their teachers and parents—came from what they called the “other” Serbia, especially from its battered middle classes. They wanted to show the world that they were not genocidal maniacs but ordinary citizens who had had enough of war and authoritarianism and yearned for the kind of plural society that was emerging in other post-Communist countries. Significantly and fatally, however, the country’s industrial workers stayed at home. Still, the marchers gained sympathy throughout the world; to some they even seemed to be redeeming Serbia’s ugly reputation. Finally Milosevic gave in and the opposition candidates were allowed their rightful places on municipal councils, including Belgrade’s.

Then came the great betrayal, from which Serbia has yet to recover. Far from using this first taste of power to make life better for its people and to build political organizations capable of winning a general election, the opposition fell apart. Its two main leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, by now mayor of Belgrade, quarreled, accusing each other of consorting with Milosevic and the secret police. Then Draskovic, who has a long record of nationalist demagogy and political deviousness, moved to get rid of his former ally, voting him out of office by allying himself with Milosevic’s SPS and the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party.

Worse was to come. In many towns where opposition municipal leaders had taken up the posts they now owed to the winter demonstrations of ordinary people, they proved to be just as corrupt as the SPS bureaucrats whom they had replaced. They demanded payoffs for the smallest municipal services. The bribe needed to open a kiosk in Belgrade is now said to be $3000.

After this, Vuk Draskovic entered negotiations with Milosevic to join the government. Milosevic left open the possibility that Draskovic might eventually do so but he chose as deputy prime minister of Serbia someone else—Vojislav Seselj, the former paramilitary leader and head of the Serbian Radical Party. Seselj has a Ph.D. in political theory and is a very clever man. His party is a frankly authoritarian, not to say fascist, organization committed to the principle that the country must regain “Greater Serbia” under the direction of a strong leader, namely Seselj. More concretely, many remember him for his threat in the early 1990s to gouge out Croatian eyeballs with a rusty shoehorn.

The collapse of the opposition has left the hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people who believe in a democratic and modern Serbia in utter despair. To them Milosevic now seems invincible. The former opposition leaders have little remaining support and people are numb and exhausted. Again and again one hears the same thing. “This has been going on for ten years now…and we are tired…very tired.”

The result has been that Milosevic has been, until very recently, in a stronger position than he was only a year ago, and he may still be. It is very hard to find anyone who actually supports the man, but harder to find anyone who can tell you who will replace him—apart from Seselj. At the end of May, moreover, the government took further advantage of the political weakness of the Serbs who oppose Milosevic. While international attention was concentrated on Kosovo and Montenegro, the authorities launched what amounted to a smash-and-grab raid on the universities, the bastions of anti-Milosevic activity. A new law was shoved through parliament giving the Minister of Education—and not the university faculties—effective control over all university appointments. Now teachers will be far more reluctant to write articles criticizing Milosevic or to join a protest against him.

  1. 1

    Slavoljub Djukic, Izmedju slave i anateme: Politicka biografija Slobodana Milosevica (Belgrade: Filip Visnjic, 1994), pp. 14-15.

  2. 2

    Sabrina P. Ramet, Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia, 1962-1991 (Indiana University Press, 1992, second edition), p. 229.

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