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“Louis Sell brings to his fascinating study of the Serbian tyrant a deep experience in the Balkans, an authority based on his own participation in some of the events he describes, and a keen analytical eye. This is a first-rate book.”—Warren Zimmermann, United States Ambassador to Yugoslavia, 1989–1992
“Louis Sell systematically maps the rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic in the first comprehensive biography of the man seen as most responsible for the violent disintegration of former Yugoslavia. Armed with years of experience as a diplomat and analyst of the Balkans, Sell has written a scholarly and compelling account about Slobodan Milosevic. It is an important work that merits attention from anyone who wants to understand the nature of Slobodan Milosevic’s disastrous rule.”—Laura Silber, author of The Death of Yugoslavia
The Young Milosevic and the
Yugoslavia He Destroyed
Slobodan Milosevic was born on 20 August 1941 in the central Serbian town of Pozarevac, about seventy-five miles south of Belgrade, where his family had fled at the beginning of the Second World War. He comes from Montenegrin stock that traces its roots back to the time of the 1389 battle of Kosovo Polje, where the Ottoman Turks crushed the medieval Serbian Empire. One of Milosevic's later ancestors was Milos Markov, a noted Chetnik commander in the early eighteenth century who inspired a song about a hero killed by traitors and whose grave is said to be tended even today. Milosevic's paternal grandfather was an officer in the Montenegrin army. His father graduated from the Orthodox seminary in the ancient Montenegrin capital of Cetinje and served before the Second World War as a professor of Russian at the Theological Academy of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade. Both of Milosevic's parents were said to be Partisan sympathizers, although neither were apparently Partisan fighters. His mother, called by her uncle the most beautiful Montenegrin woman of her generation, was also said to be a devoted believer in Communism.
Pozarevac is situated in Sumadija, an area of gently rolling hills and rich farms that is often described as the Serbian heartland. In 1804, a swarthy, illiterate pig dealer named Djordje Petrovic, later known as Karadjordje from the Turkish word for black, began the first Serbian uprising against the Turks in Sumadija. The thick oak forests that once covered Sumadija (the word suma meansforest in Serbo-Croatian) also served for centuries as a haven for the haidjuks—forest outlaws who combined banditry with resistance to the Turkish overlords who ruled Serbia for almost five hundred years and whose exploits were recounted for centuries around the firesides of Serbian peasants.
In the nineteenth century, Sumadija formed the central core around which Serbian leaders gradually added territory won through a series of rebellions against the Turks and wars against their neighbors. Sumadija was also the center of the Serbian peasant culture that nineteenth-century intellectuals drew on to shape an image of Serbian national identity that highlighted folkways such as individuality, hospitality, sly good humor, and cheerfulness in the face of adversity—all important features of how Serbs see themselves today. But there was another, darker side to the Sumadija peasant heritage—narrow-minded, Serb-centered, primitive, and violent—that competed for the Serb soul. Throughout his career, it has been this atavistic side of the Serb character that Milosevic, the boy from Sumadija, has appealed to.
For the Milosevic family, like almost everyone else in Yugoslavia, the war years were probably a grinding and dangerous struggle for the basic necessities of survival. Hunger, disease, and violent death were daily occurrences even in areas like Pozarevac where there were no major battles. In October 1941, the Germans murdered several thousand civilians—including hundreds of schoolchildren—in the nearby town of Kragujevac and word of this massacre must have spread quickly to Pozarevac.
Like the rest of Yugoslavia, Serbia was the scene of a vicious civil war that went on underneath the German occupation. Sumadija was a center of the resistance movement known as the Chetniks. Led by a prewar Yugoslav army colonel named Draza Mihajlovic, the Chetniks were Serbian patriots whose strong anti-Communist beliefs eventually led them into fatal compromises with the occupying Germans, depriving them of Allied support and dooming them to defeat in the struggle for Yugoslavia's future.
The Chetniks saw their main enemy as Tito's Communist Partisans, who began their uprising against the Germans in the summer of 1941 by briefly seizing an arms factory in the town of Uzice, west of Pozarevac. Although the main Partisan forces were quickly driven out of Serbia—operating for most of the rest of the war in the more rugged, mountainous terrain of Bosnia, Montenegro, and Croatia—they returned to Pozarevac to stay in the fall of 1944 in the wake of the Red Army. Milosevic thus belongs to the generation of Yugoslavs who lived from the beginning of their conscious lives under the Communist regime founded by Tito.
By the end of the Second World War, Yugoslavia was a devastated land. At least one million Yugoslavs had been killed, most at the hands of fellow countrymen. Approximately half of the dead were Serbs, many slaughtered by the Croatian fascist Ustashi, who wiped out entire villages in their effort to eradicate the Serb presence from Croatia and Bosnia. Approximately 15 percent of Yugoslavia's prewar housing and 40 percent of its industrial facilities had been destroyed. Allied bombing, resistance activities, and destruction by the retreating Germans had wiped out much of Yugoslavia's transportation and communication infrastructure. Poverty, hunger, and disease stalked the land when Milosevic was a small boy.
Foreign assistance meant the difference between life and death for many Yugoslavs, especially children of Milosevic's age. In the immediate postwar years, the United Nations (UN) distributed $415 million in humanitarian and economic assistance to Yugoslavia. The ubiquitous logo of the UN Refugee and Relief Agency (UNRRA)—found throughout Yugoslavia on sacks of food, crates of clothing, and vehicles—must have been among Milosevic's earliest memories. The United States contributed almost $300 million, or 72 percent of the UNRRA assistance, to Yugoslavia. Although the Communist authorities did their best to conceal it, most Yugoslavs knew the origin of the relief supplies reaching them. The memory provided a reservoir of grassroots goodwill toward the United States for decades. (Even thirty years after the Second World War, during our first tour in Yugoslavia, the mere sight of scrambled eggs on a breakfast plate was enough to cause every Yugoslav old enough to remember the postwar era to make a crack about "Truman eggs": the powdered eggs that formed a staple of U.S. food aid.) Whether Milosevic ever received any of the proverbial chewing gum from one of the three-hundred-strong U.S. relief mission is unknown, but he was probably aware of the Americans' presence and most likely saw them on some occasion.
The new Yugoslavia introduced by Tito and his youthful followers was distinguished by a fierce commitment to a militant brand of Communism. Partisans controlled the media, public administration, army, and police. Large economic enterprises were nationalized and a rigid, Soviet-style, centrally planned economy introduced.
The Partisans enforced a harsh retribution against their wartime enemies. In the spring of 1945, the Partisans killed perhaps as many as thirty thousand Ustashi, Croatian Homeguard soldiers, and Slovenian opponents, some of whom had been handed over by Allied forces. In 1946, Chetnik leader Mihajlovic was captured and executed, and in the period 1945-1946, perhaps one hundred thousand of his supporters were hunted down and killed. Moslem opponents of the Partisans were also rounded up in Bosnia, including a student named Alija Izetbegovic, who was sentenced to three years imprisonment in 1946 for belonging to a group called the Young Moslems.
In 1948, the seven-year-old Milosevic may have heard his elders whispering in tones of awed and apprehensive disbelief about the defining moment in postwar Yugoslav history: the break with Josef Stalin. The Yugoslavs were prickly proud of their own independent path to power and quickly grew to resent the overbearing approach the Soviets took toward them. When the Yugoslavs presumed to differ with Stalin on a variety of domestic and diplomatic issues, the Soviets read Yugoslavia out of the Cominform, the organization established to coordinate Soviet hegemony over its new satellites in Eastern Europe.
For years the Yugoslav Communists had glorified Stalin, and sympathy toward the Soviet Union was widespread. "I will shake my little finger and there will be no more Tito," Stalin is reported to have said, but the Yugoslav police acted with their customary efficiency to forestall Stalin's finger wagging. Yugoslav scholars writing forty years after the split found that over 16,000 people had been arrested during the campaign against the Cominform, and another 55,600 had been officially registered as Cominform supporters and subjected to police monitoring. Initially unable to believe that Stalin had truly turned his back on them, the Yugoslav Communists also tried to prove their loyalty by an aggressive pursuit of Stalinist policies at home, including a brief yet disastrous campaign of forced collectivization that must have hit the rural areas around Pozarevac hard.
Milosevic's father left his family after the Second World War, fleeing Pozarevac according to some in Belgrade because his background as a Russian language teacher led him to be suspected of pro-Moscow sympathies. Settling in a stone cottage in the Milosevic family homestead, near the remote hamlet of Tuzi, in the shadow of the desolate Komovi mountain range thirty miles north of the Montenegrin capital then known as Titograd, Milosevic's father was said to have been protected by the Montenegrin political leadership of the time. Whatever the reason for Milosevic's father's flight, he apparently never returned to Pozarevac and seems to have passed completely out of Milosevic's life—although in the last year of his rule Milosevic paid for his father's grave to be renovated with a new granite headstone.
In its early years, Tito's Communist regime—despite its totalitarian ideology and early repressive actions—enjoyed genuine popularity in many parts of war-weary Yugoslavia. The Communists mobilized the population for a massive reconstruction effort, partly voluntary and partly through forced labor, that by 1947 had returned agricultural and mining output to almost prewar levels, well ahead of the rest of Europe. Partisan veterans, many themselves barely out of their teens, led youth brigades to rebuild destroyed ports, factories, and roads. In the immediate postwar years, Milosevic must have seen many of his older acquaintances joining these brigades and later probably participated in them himself. By the time Milosevic was old enough to join the youth brigades, however, their focus had shifted away from the critically needed reconstruction projects to propaganda exercises, such as the painfully accumulated piles of rocks arranged to display Tito's name, which can still be seen along some remote hillsides in Yugoslavia like the remnants an ancient civilization found amid the barren sands of a desert.
Romeo and Juliet
By the early 1950s, as the young Milosevic entered junior high school, life in Yugoslavia settled into a pattern of relative stability and prosperity. Yugoslavia in the 1950s experienced some of the highest growth rates in the world. Modern conveniences such as home appliances, tractors, and even a few private cars began to appear. Radio, film, and eventually television brought the outside world into areas such as Pozarevac, which only a generation earlier had still been shaped largely by the patriarchal traditions of Serb peasant culture.
Even as economic and social progress transformed Yugoslavia into something approaching a modern country, Communism retained its firm control over all essential elements of Yugoslav life. Marxist versions of politics, economics, and history were the only ones allowed in the educational system that molded the young Milosevic. The Partisan victory in World War II was ever present in stories, songs, and film. The contemporary world outside Yugoslavia was still treated in a mainly black-and-white fashion. Despite American economic and military assistance, which continued until the early 1960s, world capitalism led by the United States was portrayed as the enemy of all progressive humanity.
Milosevic's youth in Pozarevac passed unremarkably. His grades were good though not exceptional, but his seriousness and good behavior won the esteem of his teachers. In 1959, Milosevic joined the Communist Party while still in high school.
Uninterested in sports or other physical activities, Milosevic had few friends among his peers and seems to have been something of a prig. He generally sat in the front row of his class at school, and was noted for always wearing a white shirt and tie—definitely not standard behavior for boys in small-town Serbia. A former Milosevic classmate described the future president as a loner who spurned childhood pranks in favor of his books. "We called him 'Silky,'" said one such friend. "His mother dressed him funny and kept him soft. He had nothing in common with us. We could never get him to join in when we raided orchards or did other things that boys of that age do."
Despite its seemingly uneventful beginnings in small-town Serbia, Milosevic's family history is steeped in tragedy. Both his parents ended their lives through suicide. After separating from Milosevic's mother, his father lived as something of a recluse in Montenegro. In 1962, Milosevic's father shot himself, possibly after the suicide of a pupil to whom he had given a low grade. Milosevic learned of his father's death while on a student trip to Russia and did not attend the funeral.
Years later, a remote Milosevic relative said there had been no shame in Milosevic's father's death. "One day he just decided to end his life. He didn't do it out of cowardice—I often heard him say how a fool lives as long as his destiny allows him."
Ten years later, his mother also took her life under circumstances that remain unclear. She may have been lonely and dejected after the departure from home of both her sons or possibly she was affected by the suicide of her brother, a military intelligence officer. A well-informed Western journalist reports that Milosevic's mother killed herself after a conflict with the human being who has been closest to Milosevic for most of his life—his wife, Mirjana Markovic.
Milosevic met his future wife while both were attending high school in Pozarevac and he married her in 1965 shortly after his university graduation. From the beginning, the young Slobo and Mira had a relationship that went well beyond the casual schooltime romance. Often seen in public holding hands, they were called the "Pozarevac Romeo and Juliet." Until Milosevic's imprisonment in the Hague, they had never been separated since their youth, either romantically or politically. The only portrait in Milosevic's private office is of his wife, and when the couple are together, their affection for one another is obvious. "Unlike most men in the Balkans, he [Milosevic] has only slept with one woman in his life," said one Belgrade analyst who, like many at the end of the 1990s, believed that Milosevic's relationship with his wife was a key to understanding his behavior.
Unlike Milosevic, who grew up in modest circumstances as the child of refugees, Mirjana Markovic comes from a family that was long prominent in the Pozarevac region. One ancestor was reportedly a lieutenant of Karadjordje in his early-nineteenth-century uprising against the Turks. Born in 1942 in a war-time guerrilla hide-out, Markovic also comes from one of Serbia's leading Communist families. Her father, Moma Markovic, was a national hero; her aunt, Davorjanka Paunovic, was Tito's secretary, mistress, and "the love of his life," according to some; and her uncle, Draza Markovic, served as Serbia's Prime Minister. All his life Milosevic—according to those who have known both him and his wife—never lost the sense of being a poor boy who had had the good fortune to enter into a family with a historic pedigree.
But Markovic also shares with her husband a similar tragic family background. Her mother, Vera Miletic, helped organize the partisan movement in the Pozarevac region. But Miletic was later arrested by the Germans and, after being tortured, reportedly betrayed a number of partisan leaders in Belgrade. In his wartime memoirs, Markovic's father wrote that after behaving badly at the hands of the police, Miletic was executed by a partisan firing squad in the fall of 1944. Toward the end of his life, however, Moma Markovic in the circle of his family questioned whether his first wife had, in fact, cracked under police interrogation. Long-time associates of Mira Markovic say that she never believed that her mother had betrayed her comrades.
Many in Belgrade believe that Mira Markovic's orthodox marxist views—she long insisted on being called "Comrade" and has been the driving force behind two parties claiming to be successors to the Communists—stem from her mother's unhappy history. Nebojsa Covic, mayor of Belgrade from 1994 to 1997, and later a prominent member of the coalition that overthrew Milosevic, says that Markovic "functions by trying to prove whether her mother betrayed [the Party] or not." Even in her youth, Markovic was attached to the ideal of pure Communism. For years she wore a silk rose in her hair, after discovering one in a photograph of her mother. She refused to join her powerful father in Belgrade and later recalled with disdain vacations on Tito's luxurious island retreat of Brioni, insisting that she could not wait to return to Pozarevac—and presumably to Slobodan as well.
Despite her infatuation with Milosevic, Markovic has always remained her own person. She retained her maiden name after their marriage, supported by Milosevic, who said that he would "never have married a girl who would change her last name." Markovic began her career as a journalist at the prominent Belgrade daily Politika, but later became a professor of marxism at Belgrade University. By her own admission, Markovic has not had a single woman friend since high school. She is most comfortable among male friends, who she calls her "reference group." Markovic is vain about her appearance—in mid-1996, she underwent painful plastic surgery—and is said to be convinced of her attractiveness to men.
Markovic's ambition for Milosevic was evident from the start. According to one account, when she saw Tito's portrait displayed in a shop window, she told a school friend that one day Milosevic's portrait would be similarly displayed over the entire country. Markovic played an important behind-the-scenes role from the beginning of Milosevic's career. She helped organize the "small Politburo" that orchestrated Milosevic's rise to power in the late 1980s and wrote many of his speeches. Ten years later, as support for Milosevic dwindled, Markovic—surrounded by an odd assortment of retro-marxists and corrupt war profiteers—came to be viewed as the real power behind the throne.
The Inescapable Tito
Josip Broz Tito presided over Yugoslavia throughout Milosevic's youth and much of his adult life. Tito's photo, usually picturing him in his resplendent marshall's uniform, hung in every office, shop, and classroom throughout the country. (Milosevic's office in Belgrade had a portrait of Tito until 1991, when it was replaced by a picture of Mira.) Tito's travels and speeches were described with breathless adoration by the Yugoslav media and his word was law. Schoolchildren studied his life with reverence, and recited songs and poetry in his honor. The young Milosevic undoubtedly joined on many occasions with his schoolmates in singing songs such as "Comrade Tito, You Warm Us like the Sun." Milosevic, together with the rest of Pozarevac, was probably mobilized a few times to wave Yugoslav flags and cheer while the Marshall's motorcade or perhaps his famous "Blue Train" sped by.
A man of action rather than a deep thinker, Tito had an impatience for the subtleties of marxist dogma, which was probably beneficial for him and Yugoslavia. Although he never progressed beyond a grade school education and his only job outside the party was as a mechanic, Tito demonstrated a sure grasp for techniques of governance and the main directions of policy. His decision to stand up to Stalin and launch Yugoslavia on its path of independent development brought him wide popularity through the country, even among opponents of Communism. Once the initial harsh postwar years had passed, Tito showed tolerance for new ideas. In 1950, largely in order to distinguish Yugoslav socialism from the Soviet variety, he introduced the concept of self-management under which workers were supposed to own and manage their factories through autonomous workers councils. Self-management was the ideological centerpiece of the Yugoslav system that Milosevic grew up with. Behind the scenes, however, firm control always remained in the hands of the Communist Party.
Tito also enjoyed an almost Falstaffian appetite for the good things in life: flashy clothes, fast cars, luxurious appointments, and beautiful women. To this day, no one seems to have come up with an accurate count of the state residences, vacation resorts, and hunting lodges that were kept fully staffed and equipped waiting for a visit by him. These traits were carefully guarded from public attention while the Marshall was alive, but toward the end of the 1980s, media revelations about Tito's personal excesses were a major part of the assault on Yugoslavia unleashed by Milosevic and his imitators in other Yugoslav republics.
Tito's two greatest achievements occurred early in his rule, and they decisively shaped the Yugoslavia of Milosevic's youth. These were the re-creation of a united Yugoslavia in 1945 after its dismemberment by the Nazis, and his guidance of that state—after the 1948 split with Stalin—along a path of relative openness, tolerance, and prosperity. Tito's two greatest failings—his unwillingness to abandon one-party Communist rule as well as his failure to deal honestly and openly with the national question—ultimately made it possible for Milosevic to destroy the state Tito created.
Milosevic at the University
After high school, Milosevic left Pozarevac to attend the law faculty of the University of Belgrade, where he graduated in 1963 with a mediocre 8.9 (out of 10) average. (Milosevic's grades would have been higher had he not consistently obtained low marks in the required military training courses.) Milosevic's fellow students at the university remember him primarily for his buttoned-down seriousness and enthusiasm for politics. Becoming the head of the law faculty's Communist Party organization, Milosevic carried out his party work with efficiency and zeal. Milosevic had "a genius for party politics," recalls Nebojsa Popov, Milosevic's predecessor as student party head and later a prominent anti-Milosevic intellectual. Another university friend remembers party sessions held in the highly prized single room in the student dormitory that Milosevic received as a perk for his party position.
Others, however, recollect Milosevic differently. A former Yugoslav official, who attended the university at the same time as Milosevic, recalls that many of the characteristics associated with the later Milosevic were already visible in his youth. According to the former official, Milosevic was regarded at the university as a typical young party careerist—a toady to those above him in the hierarchy and a bully to those below him in the pecking order.
At the University Milosevic had his first brush with Yugoslav high politics. In 1963, Yugoslavia changed its Constitution. The process was accompanied by public meetings around the country, where the masses were supposed to express their views on the new document. During a meeting at the law faculty, attended by some of the most senior officials in Yugoslavia—including Kiro Gligorov, who twenty-eight years later, as the first president of independent Macedonia, would successfully guide his republic's separation from the Milosevic-dominated rump Yugoslavia—the young Slobodan raised his hand to speak. The original draft of the 1963 Constitution established Yugoslavia as the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Milosevic suggested that the socialist character of the state would be better expressed if the first two words were reversed and the country called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Milosevic's proposal was accepted and eventually incorporated into the final version of the new Constitution. Who could have suspected that twenty-five years later, the earnest young man would be responsible for destroying the country whose name he had suggested?
Excerpted from Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia by Louis Sell. Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.