Crusader for Serb Honor Was Defiant Until the End

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By Daniel Williams and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 12, 2006

ROME, March 11 -- Slobodan Milosevic rode nationalist pride and rage to power and led his Serb compatriots into four ethnic wars.

He lost them all.

Yet until the end, Milosevic played the defiant master of his own fate and defender of Serb honor. He insisted on managing his defense at the U.N. international war crimes tribunal and reveled in ridiculing prosecution witnesses even as his ruddy face belied the high blood pressure that may have contributed to his death Saturday at age 64.

At the tribunal, which was underway at The Hague, in the Netherlands, Milosevic was charged with overseeing the worst wartime atrocities against civilians in Europe since World War II. Among them was the massacre of about 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were taken to the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and herded off for execution in areas throughout the mountainous region.

The trial of the former leader was in its fifth year, and he had been urged by the presiding judge to wrap up his defense by May.

Milosevic was one of the driving forces behind the breakup of Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state held together by the charisma and repression of Josip Broz, the World War II fighter and Communist leader known as Tito. The Balkan wars of the 1990s ended with the creation of five new states: Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Macedonia.

Only Slovenia and Macedonia broke off from Yugoslavia with relatively little bloodshed, while the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo cost 200,000 lives, created 3 million refugees and left damages estimated at $20 billion to $60 billion. The province of Kosovo is awaiting independence through talks aimed at finally determining its status. Montenegro, which is still joined with Serbia, is set to vote soon on whether to declare independence.

Milosevic was one of four Yugoslav political leaders at the end of the Tito era who sought more political control through the formation of an ethnically-based state. In Croatia, it was Franjo Tudjman. In Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic. In Kosovo, Ibrahim Rugova.

Milosevic, who spoke in short, sharp sentences, appealed to the Serb sense of history and victimization. One phrase, delivered in 1987 on an historic battlefield in Kosovo, then a province of Serbia, set his career on a path of destruction. "No one will ever beat you again," he told a throng of Serbs who were complaining that the majority ethnic Albanians in the province were persecuting them.

Nearly three years later, he was elected president of Serbia in its first democratic elections held since World War II. He then tried to gain Serbian domination of the eight-member Yugoslav presidency, prompting resistance by the leaders of the other republics. As they sought political independence, he incited the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to revolt.

His pledge to unify all Serbs in one state turned into an ironic promise. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were driven out of Croatia and Kosovo into Serbia proper. Many Bosnian Serbs now live in northern Bosnia, in a tense political coexistence with Croats and Muslims living in the country's south. Milosevic was born in the central Serbian town of Pozarevac to a Serbian Orthodox priest and a teacher. At different points in his career, he headed Yugoslavia's state-run natural gas company and the state-operated United Bank of Belgrade. In 1986, the communist apparatchik was named to head the party.

His wife, Mirjana Markovic, was a theoretician for Milosevic's Socialist Party. Serb authorities have charged Markovic and their son, Marko, with abuse of power and corruption. Marko is reported to have earned millions of dollars through cigarette smuggling. Both are in exile in Russia. Milosevic and his wife also had a daughter, Marija.

Critics say Milosevic benefited royally from power. Mladen Dinkic, Serb finance minister until earlier this year, wrote that Yugoslavia under Milosevic was a country in which "paranormal economic phenomena are an everyday occurrence." More than half the country's revenue was deposited in so-called special accounts not listed in its budget.

"This is why Serbia is poor," said Milorad Savicevic, who at the end of the Milosevic era managed two state-owned corporations. "We had low production, no investment and lots of corruption. The result is a nation with 4 million really poor people, and 10,000 really rich people" in a total population of 10 million, living on agriculturally fertile land.

Milosevic also held power through manipulation of the state-run media. His underlings often faxed scripts to state television and radio that condemned his local and foreign enemies in foul language, with orders to read every word on air. Milosevic appointees reviewed all news broadcasts and literally ripped news copy from reporters' hands if deemed incorrect.

Milosevic also effectively used his secret police to undermine opponents, and even ordered the assassination of several of his political rivals, according to criminal charges brought by Serb courts after his ouster.

The worst conflict of his years, in Bosnia, ended in 1995, when Milosevic signed the U.S.-brokered peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio. Nominally, the accord guaranteed Bosnia's statehood within its old borders but left the warring populations largely inhabiting separate areas of the country.

The Kosovo war climaxed with U.S.-led airstrikes in 1999 of Serb army positions in Kosovo and towns and cities in Serbia. The Serb withdrawal from the province opened the way to NATO-led occupation. Kosovo refugees returned to the province and Serbs fled in fear.

After the conclusion of each war, Milosevic faced political crises that he tried to put down with police repression and occasional assassinations. In 1996, he overturned local elections and resisted protest rallies that threatened his rule.

In September 2000, he lost the first direct vote for president, although the election commission declared the need for a runoff. Mobs attacked parliament, but police and the army stood by idly. On Oct. 5, Milosevic was ousted. The revolt was engineered in part by youthful political dissidents who benefited from an infusion of Western cash and training, but it was sustained by key military and political leaders who had become weary of his increasingly oppressive rule.

A successor and longtime rival, Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, engineered Milosevic's extradition to The Hague in April 2001, under international pressure. A secret police sniper assassinated Djindjic on March 12, 2003, as the Djindjic government began to crack down on the Milosevic-era alliance between criminals and security forces. Serbia is now ruled by a fractious coalition that includes Milosevic's former Socialist Party.

Prosecutors at The Hague called 294 witnesses against Milosevic. Milosevic, in turn, named 1,400 people he wanted to question in his defense, among them former president Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, none of whom has been subpoenaed.

In his jail cell, Milosevic read Hemingway and John Updike, a biographer has reported, and listened to the music of Celine Dion and Frank Sinatra. Sinatra's "My Way" was a favorite.

Smith reported from Washington.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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