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YUGOSLAVIA: POWER CHANGES HANDS | NEWS ANALYSIS

Serb Strongman Led Nation on Ruinous Path

October 07, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He led his country to ruin, taking it into four losing wars and shrinking it to a fraction of its former self, earning a reputation as a murderous dictator, Europe's last. Yet Slobodan Milosevic defied the Western world and survived until the thuggish system he created rotted from the inside, to be pushed over in a spasm of anger by rural workers who had supported it for so long.

For more than a decade, Milosevic weathered the West's military might, America's best diplomatic scheming, costly international isolation and a war crimes indictment, maneuvering to retain both power and wealth.

Only a bad miscalculation, a popular and mostly peaceful rebellion within his country, and a rival who could appeal to the same nationalist pride that Milosevic exploited, would finally topple the man known in the West as the "Butcher of the Balkans."

On Friday, Milosevic conceded he had lost to Vojislav Kostunica in a Sept. 24 election he had called to prolong his grip on power.

His actions shaped modern European history, handed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization the largest military mission in its history and left his countrymen exhausted, impoverished and bitter.

A Communist Party technocrat from a troubled family, Milosevic built his career on betrayal and a cynical co-opting of the dream of a Greater Serbia. Under the banner of that dream, he unleashed waves of destruction, wreaking the worst havoc on Europe since World War II.

It was Milosevic who put the term "ethnic cleansing" into the lexicon of a horrified international public. His proxies in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo murdered, pillaged and oversaw large-scale deportations of civilians in a bid to unify Serbs in a common nation devoid of Muslims, Catholics and any non-Serbs.

But ultimately, he did a major disservice to the cause of the Serbian people as well. Whatever their legitimate gripes about the breakup of the old Yugoslav federation, the brutality with which Milosevic's agents sought to redress them discredited the claims.

Despite the blood on his hands, Milosevic was sought out by successive U.S. governments and world leaders who viewed him as the only Balkan figure able to make and enforce peace--the stabilizer. He charmed some of the diplomats who came to call, sharing lavish meals, good whiskey and ribald jokes told in heavily accented but colloquial English honed while working for a Yugoslav bank in New York from 1978 to 1982.

While Washington and Europe regarded him as a necessary evil, Milosevic rarely faced a serious challenge at home. He divided, weakened or bought off his political opposition. He kept a tight grip on most of the media, the police and the state's economic levers, surrounding himself with a clique of loyalists. Many of them were old friends of his influential wife, and many profited from breaking international sanctions.

President Won Over Working-Class Serbs

Aside from that tight circle of associates, Milosevic maintained a following, mostly of rural or working-class Serbs who took their world view from the media Milosevic controlled, and depended on the patronage of the Communist system that he represented. He convinced those people they were victims of their fellow Yugoslavs and the world, and then played to their sense of fatalism and persecution. They fought his wars and they suffered the consequences of international isolation that shut factories, destroyed living standards and forced them to endure weeks of NATO bombing.

Milosevic lost the middle class and intellectuals years before. Many emigrated; others focused on the struggle to survive. But when the rural workers came to Belgrade on Thursday, stormed the federal parliament and state television, the system crumbled in a single, euphoric day.

His political career began, and in a sense ended, in Kosovo, the southern Serbian province that holds a near-mystical status as the cradle of Serbian culture. His dramatic leap in 1987 to the head of the Communist Party of Serbia was launched in Kosovo, where minority Serbs lorded over majority ethnic Albanians.

Ethnic violence that left a couple of Serbs injured gave Milosevic his chance; he proclaimed in lavish form that no Serb would ever be beaten again. His pledge appealed to the nationalist sentiments of southern Serbs and catapulted him into a position to overthrow then-President Ivan Stambolic, his mentor.

Kosovo would also be the theater, 12 years later, for a disastrous gamble that probably spelled the beginning of the end. Milosevic dispatched his special forces to fight a fledgling ethnic Albanian armed resistance in the province. The forces carried out massacres and provoked massive expulsions, leading to NATO bombing.

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