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To His Dwindling Band, Milosevic Remains a Tyrant

October 22, 2000|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Slobodan Milosevic has lost power, but he still has a phone, and he uses it to berate a shrinking circle of lieutenants willing to listen to his abuse.

Bitter and broken, the ousted Yugoslav president sits like a virtual hermit in one of his heavily guarded Belgrade villas, breaking his silence to call one official or another and yell at him, said Aleksandar Tijanic, once a member of Milosevic's inner circle.

"I know that he insulted the speaker of the Serbian parliament, Dragan Tomic, so much that Tomic hung up on him," said Tijanic, once Serbia's information minister.

Milosevic, a recluse even at the height of his power, was incensed because he thought Tomic was being too cooperative in drawn-out negotiations for a transfer of power to the 18-party coalition led by new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, Tijanic said.

"He can be very unpleasant when he talks with his subordinates," Tijanic added. "He often insults them, curses at them, and nobody dares to oppose him--even now."

Milosevic is said to have emerged briefly from seclusion Friday to scold members of his Socialist Party of Serbia for its dismal showing in the Sept. 24 election. The party is so deeply split between Milosevic loyalists and more moderate leaders, Tijanic said, that it will likely break into at least two factions.

Like any dictator, Milosevic finds it difficult to give up, but almost everyone else now sees him for the hollow man that he is, added Tijanic, a hulking journalist with a crew cut who turned against Milosevic in 1996 and became one of his most vocal enemies.

"He looks like this big rubber man in the Michelin tire ads," Tijanic said through a translator. "When you pierce him, he blows off in the wind.

"He can still have somebody killed in this country. But he cannot politically decide anything."

No one, except maybe Milosevic and his most fanatic supporters, thinks he can ever be a political force again. But the corrupt hybrid of dictatorship and democracy that he created is still very much alive.

Kostunica calls the overthrow of Milosevic a "democratic revolution," but after getting rid of Milosevic in a matter of hours, the uprising petered out into a negotiated transfer of power. Most of the faces are new, but so far they're running the same old system.

Tijanic calls it "Slobism," which allowed for multi-party elections and a fairly free press, which were then neutralized by vote-rigging, a powerful state-run propaganda machine and political control of the judiciary, military, police and state-run industries.

"Slobism was meant to outlive Slobo," Tijanic said, using Milosevic's nickname. "It is a very efficient mix of politics, mafia, abuse of the law and overturning all traditional democratic institutions."

The people who got rich under Milosevic "want to, without any problem, enter a new system," Tijanic said, "and they carry in them the virus of the old system."

"If they manage to infect the new system, Serbia will be sentenced to live for the next decade in chaos and lawlessness, and to work for mafia capital that will be legalized through the destruction of Milosevic."

Eight years of crippling economic sanctions, which continue to block crucial financial aid, helped make Yugoslavia a smugglers paradise dominated by gangsters such as Milosevic's son, Marko, who got rich hustling cigarettes on the black market.

Even now, Milosevic, his family and a network of cronies haven't been touched by the law, said Momcilo Perisic, a leader in Kostunica's coalition who once served Milosevic as army chief of staff.

"I'm asking what the public prosecutor is doing, what the judiciary is doing, what the people who have relevant data about crime are doing," said the former general, considered a front-runner to become Yugoslavia's new defense minister.

"Why are these people not called, in a civilized and democratic way, to be held responsible for getting enormously rich through illegal acts, at the expense of other people in the fatherland?"

Perisic led artillery assaults in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the Yugoslav federation's disintegration in the 1990s. Survivors consider those attacks war crimes, but he hasn't been publicly indicted by the U.N. tribunal at The Hague.

He wants Milosevic to be put on trial in a Yugoslav court after an investigation "to establish the responsibility of every individual for mistakes" during his 13-year regime.

"I personally think he should be put on trial because, through his wrong decisions, he caused enormous human casualties, the breakup of the territory and large material destruction," Perisic said.

Milosevic's crimes also include "the capitulation" to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after 11 weeks of bombing last year, which, in Perisic's words, meant the surrender of Kosovo "into the hands of Albanian separatists." Today, Kosovo is only nominally a province of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic.

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