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Archives|Slobodan Milosevic, 64, Former Yugoslav Leader Accused of War Crimes, Dies


Archives | 2006

Slobodan Milosevic, 64, Former Yugoslav Leader Accused of War Crimes, Dies


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Correction Appended

PARIS, March 11 - Slobodan Milosevic, the Communist leader whose embrace of Serbian nationalism set off almost a decade of Balkan warfare, was found dead early Saturday in his cell at the United Nations detention center in The Hague, where he had been since 2001. He was 64.

Mr. Milosevic appeared to have died from natural causes, but tribunal officials said they would not be able to give a full account until an autopsy and toxicological report were completed. He was found lifeless on his bed in his cell, a court statement said. Mr. Milosevic's wife, and his partner of almost five decades, Mirjana Markovic, who, like his brother, Borislav, is living in Moscow, was informed of Mr. Milosevic's death, the court said.

Death came as Mr. Milosevic's four-year trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide was drawing to a close. A verdict had been expected later this year.

He was the first former head of state to answer charges of such crimes and his was the longest war-crimes trial of modern times, delayed by Mr. Milosevic's frequent bouts of illness related to high blood pressure and a bad heart.


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The complex indictment covered the events of three wars -- in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo -- and almost a decade of bloodshed and vengeance that killed more than 200,000 people and earned Mr. Milosevic the sobriquet "Butcher of the Balkans."

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On the advice of medical specialists, Mr. Milosevic went to court only three days a week. A lawyer by training, he insisted on conducting his own defense, often speaking for hours and summoning witnesses, including, just last month, former President Bill Clinton, who declined. Although Mr. Milosevic had become less blustery of late, his trademark defiance allowed him to act the role of martyr for the Serbian cause until the very end.

In December, Mr. Milosevic asked to travel to Moscow for medical treatment. The judges in The Hague refused to let him leave, arguing that adequate treatment was available in the Netherlands.

Fueling Nationalist Grudges

As he rose and then clung to power by resurrecting old nationalist grudges and inciting dreams of a Greater Serbia, Mr. Milosevic became the prime engineer of wars that pitted his fellow Serbs against the Slovenes, the Croats, the Bosnians, the Albanians of Kosovo and ultimately the combined forces of the entire NATO alliance.

By stirring a dormant but incendiary nationalism, he succeeded in rallying support for himself in the late 1980's, at a time when Communism in the rest of Eastern Europe was in its death throes.

Exercising carefully calculated control of the media and operating ruthlessly behind the scenes, Mr. Milosevic established a cult of personality that struck fear into non-Serbs in Yugoslavia.

The Croats reacted by turning to their own nationalist, Franjo Tudjman, and so the stage was set for a deadly showdown between Yugoslavia's two largest ethnic groups, whose leaders manipulated centuries of historical differences -- the Serbs are Orthodox Christians, the Croats Roman Catholic; the Serbs endured Ottoman rule, the Croats the Hapsburgs -- into a brutal civil war that spread from Croatia into Bosnia-Herzegovina.

There, the Muslim plurality led by Alija Izetbegovic proved powerless to enlist sufficient international support to prevent Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Tudjman from trying to dismember his state. Three and a half years of war ravaged Bosnia, leading to some 200,000 deaths and the eviction of millions from homes in a practice that became known globally as ethnic cleansing.


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The consequences of Mr. Milosevic's rule for Serbia were devastating. His final confrontation, with the Albanians of Kosovo, provoked a NATO bombing assault in the spring of 1999 that destroyed government buildings, factories and much infrastructure in a land already ruined by years of international sanctions intended to punish Mr. Milosevic for instigating earlier wars.

As Stojan Cerovic of the independent Belgrade weekly Vreme once wrote, "he turned Serbia into a colossal ruin."

By the fall of 2000, even Mr. Milosevic's appeals to nationalism and blatant manipulation of every election he contested were no longer enough to sustain him in power.

Opposition forces who had mustered huge street protests, in 1991 and 1996, to try to oust Mr. Milosevic finally succeeded in October 2000.

Security forces, who had helped Mr. Milosevic carve out large chunks of Croatia and Bosnia for Serbs and then served his cause in Kosovo, turned against him and joined opposition forces led by Vojislav Kostunica, who had beaten Mr. Milosevic in a presidential election that the Serbian leader refused to recognize.

After his ouster, Mr. Milosevic was placed under house arrest in his villa in the elegant Belgrade district of Dedinje. Zoran Djindjic, then the prime minister, helped organize his transfer to The Hague in the summer of 2001.

But even that did not end the violence and chaos in the Serbia that Mr. Milosevic did so much to ruin. Mr. Djindjic, a charismatic leader who was trying to propel his country toward Europe, was himself assassinated in 2003.

While Mr. Milosevic instigated large-scale destruction, he was then needed to halt it. His career reached its zenith, perhaps, in late 1995, when he, along with Mr. Tudjman and Mr. Izetbegovic, traveled to Dayton, Ohio, to negotiate, under American auspices, the agreement that finally ended the Bosnian war.


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Slavoljub Djukic, a prominent Serbian journalist who wrote several books about Mr. Milosevic, neatly captured this paradox, noting that "he is both the pyromaniac and the fireman."

"He creates disorder," Mr. Djukic added, "and manages to convince people only he can resolve it."

Engineering Disorder

Mr. Milosevic's emergence from an obscure career in the Yugoslav Communist Party dates to April 1987. For 25 years, Mr. Milosevic had ridden the coattails of a university friend, Ivan Stambolic, who had power and standing in the League of Communists founded by Tito to rule Yugoslavia.

In that spring of 1987, Mr. Stambolic, the new Communist party leader in Serbia, dispatched Mr. Milosevic to Kosovo, the region in southern Serbia treasured by all Serbs as the heart of their medieval empire but which had by then fallen under the control of ethnic Albanians who made up some 90 percent of Kosovo's population.

Kosovo's Serbian minority claimed that the Albanians were continuing to drive Serbs from the province, where the legend of Serb sacrifice and victimhood was established in 1389, when the Ottoman Turks defeated Serbs on the battlefield at Kosovo Polje and began their 500 years of domination in the Balkans.

Tito, who had squashed Yugoslavia's simmering and powerful nationalisms, had died seven years earlier. The Albanians of Kosovo had violently rebelled against Yugoslav rule just months later, in the spring of 1981, and were smarting under the fierce suppression of that revolt.

Serbian nationalism, meanwhile, was simmering through the ranks of intellectuals and others in Belgrade.

Mr. Stambolic was nonetheless utterly unprepared for Mr. Milosevic to embrace this nationalism.

Instead of papering over the Albanian-Serbian dispute, Mr. Milosevic left a meeting of the mostly Albanian Communist leaders of Kosovo and wandered into a group of Serbian demonstrators in Kosovo Polje who were complaining that the police had used batons to push them back. Looking into the television cameras, Mr. Milosevic instantly vaulted into the Serbian consciousness by declaring, "No one will dare to beat you again."


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The crowd turned from hostility to cheering, "Slobo, Slobo."

The apparently spontaneous incident was in fact carefully orchestrated by Mr. Milosevic. He had arrived in Kosovo the day before and talked with some of the people who planned to demonstrate. He took advantage of close ties to television managers to obtain coverage and to assure that his utterance would be captured and repeatedly rebroadcast throughout Serbia over the next few weeks, so that the refrain became a catchphrase.

Galvanized by this exposure, Mr. Milosevic mounted a campaign that soon became a full-scale cult of personality.

Pictures of the politician with his brushed back hedgehog haircut appeared everywhere. Mobs of "Slobo" chanters were shuttled from demonstration to demonstration. Newspaper editors and television commentators were primed to praise him. Jingles and songs were written, among them one that played on his first name, which incorporates the Serbian word for freedom.

"Slobodan, they call you freedom/ You are loved by big and small/ So long as Slobo walks the land/people will not be enslaved."

Then, in the fall of 1987, Mr. Milosevic mounted an extraordinary assault on Mr. Stambolic, in a televised Communist party meeting that riveted Serbia. By the meeting's end, he had engineered Mr. Stambolic's ouster and had become the Serbs' leader, Communist by name and nationalist by choice.

Years later, Mr. Stambolic ruefully looked back on his long friendship with Mr. Milosevic and his ambitious wife. "When somebody looks at your back for 25 years, it is understandable that he gets the desire to put a knife in it at some point," he said. "Many people warned me but I did not acknowledge it."

(In 2000, Mr. Stambolic disappeared while jogging in Belgrade. His remains were found in 2003, hilly region in northern Serbia. He had been shot twice. In July 2005, a special court in Belgrade found the chief of the secret service under Mr. Milosevic and a paramilitary commander guilty of planning and carrying out the assassination.)

A Lifelong Partner

Throughout his career, Mr. Milosevic trusted perhaps only one person -- his wife, a onetime professor of Marxism, who served as his brain trust, helping him organize his political strategy and tactics.


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A more doctrinaire ideologue than her husband, Ms. Markovic was at times demonized as the "Red Witch." Critics routinely deprecated her, mocking outlandish diaries published in fawning Belgrade publications, but she was a formidable presence in Serbian politics.

The couple had met in high school in Pozarevac, a provincial town some 50 miles south of Belgrade, where Mr. Milosevic was born on Aug. 20, 1941.

While Slobodan and his older brother, Borislav, were in grade school, their father left the family for his native Montenegro. Mr. Milosevic's mother, who reared him, was also a teacher, and a dedicated Communist activist.

As a youth, Mr. Milosevic was a pudgy loner with few friends. He shunned sports and wrote poetry. In 1962 while he was at university, his father committed suicide by shooting himself. His mother hanged herself 11 years later. An uncle, his mother's brother, a former general, also took his own life.

While Mr. Milosevic had effusive moments, and loved to engage the many Western diplomats and politicians with whom he negotiated during the war years in lengthy, alcohol-laced discussions of Balkan history, he was most often described as a loner, reclusive and moody. He and his wife had few close friends, relying on each other and their two children, Maria and Marko, who became infamous for driving cars at high speed and toting a gun.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's Mr. Milosevic intensified his nationalist rhetoric, stepped up his Kosovo campaign and broadened his assaults on fellow Communists from other parts of Yugoslavia.

In June 1989, on the 600th anniversary of the Ottomans' defeat of the Serbs, Mr. Milosevic returned once more to Kosovo Polje. Standing on the ancient battlefield, before a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, he signaled that there would be war. "Six centuries later, we are again in battles and quarrels," he said. "They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded yet."

Over the next two years, Mr. Milosevic secretly plotted war. The minority Serbs in Croatia, led by Milan Babic, a dentist from the town of Knin, served as his first instrument to whip up trouble.


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Croatia's Serbs felt bitterly betrayed by the election, in 1990, of Mr. Tudjman, an unswerving Croatian nationalist, as president of Croatia. Minority Serbs almost immediately started to lose influential jobs in the government apparatus.

Serb-Croat confrontations became ever more frequent during late 1990 and early 1991. The small, wealthy northern republic of Slovenia, meanwhile, decided that it would leave the quarrelsome Yugoslav federation by June 1991 if it proved impossible to negotiate a looser confederation that would allow the Slovenes and others much more autonomy from the dominant Serbs.

Croatia, with tacit and later explicit support from Austria and Germany, followed.

In June 1991, first Croatia and then Slovenia declared independence. Federal forces in Slovenia fought well-organized Slovenes before alarmed European diplomats helped negotiate a cease-fire, and the federal forces eventually withdrew.

In Croatia, the battles between the minority Serbs -- backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav military and armed by Mr. Milosevic's security forces -- and Mr. Tudjman's army proved much more deadly. The Serbian minority was able to carve out enclaves covering about one third of Croatian territory before peace was negotiated by the veteran American diplomat Cyrus Vance at the very start of 1992.

But the war in Croatia, it turned out, was merely the prelude to a much more horrific conflict. In Bosnia, Mr. Milosevic had been working behind the scenes for months, with his security forces ensuring that their Bosnian Serb allies were well armed and ready to take power throughout some 60 percent of Bosnia that they claimed historically belonged to the Serbs.

That spring, bands of well-armed men from Serbia descended on towns in eastern Bosnia and systematically killed Muslims.

In the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, meanwhile, Mr. Milosevic's ally, Radovan Karadzic, engineered unrest. A city that had prided itself for centuries on its blend of Muslim, Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic and Jewish faiths and had put that cosmopolitan face on display in hosting the 1984 Winter Olympics swiftly found itself under siege.

For three and a half years, at the end of the 20th century, Sarajevo endured scenes more readily imagined as medieval. Almost 10,000 people were killed by the shells launched by Serbian forces in the surrounding mountains, or bullets fired by snipers from both sides hidden in city buildings.


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Some of the dead perished from hunger and cold in a city kept alive largely by United Nations peacekeeping forces who frequently found themselves forced to suspend incoming flights of aid and food because of Serbian attacks on the planes.

Eventually, Mr. Milosevic, his economy ruined by sanctions and his patience with Mr. Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs' military leader, Ratko Mladic, wearing thin, decided that the war had to end.

In the late spring of 1995, the American diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke started reaching out to the Serbs, signaling that Washington might be prepared to do an unsavory deal with the war's protagonists.

The international impulse to end the violence was then strengthened in July 1995 by the massacre of some 7,000 Muslim men and boys by General Mladic's men after they overran the town of Srebrenica, an enclave supposedly guarded by the United Nations in eastern Bosnia.

Trouble in Kosovo

But domestically, disillusionment had set in, and Mr. Milosevic faced new trouble, in Kosovo, where the Albanians, long admired for their nonviolent resistance to the Serbian security forces who took over the province in the early 1990's, had decided to turn to armed rebellion.

Attacks by the Kosovo Liberation Army multiplied during 1998. Mr. Holbrooke and other outsiders returned to the Balkans and their long sessions with Mr. Milosevic, trying to prevent a renewed outbreak of war. But the Serbian leader would not withdraw from Kosovo. And so, in March 1999, NATO, for the first time, went to war, bombing Serbia until Mr. Milosevic eventually agreed, in June that year, to pull back his men and allow NATO peacekeepers to enter the province, which remains to this day a United Nations protectorate.

This defeat, the economic ruin and isolation that Mr. Milosevic had brought upon Serbia stirred up opposition at home, culminating in his election defeat in 2000, and then to his dispatch to The Hague in 2001.

Although he ended his days in a jail cell, Mr. Milosevic carved an indelible mark on the 20th century history of Europe.


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Mr. Babic, the erstwhile Milosevic ally who died just days before his onetime patron, summed up Mr. Milosevic's legacy when testifying against him in The Hague in 2002. "You brought shame upon the Serbian people," he said. "You brought misfortune on the Croatian people, on the Muslim people" and "orchestrated" the Balkan conflict.

Indeed, Mr. Milosevic dashed all the joy that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of Communism across the rest of Eastern Europe.

"At a time when there was real optimism in Europe, Milosevic almost single-handedly -- with help from some Croats and some Serbs -- managed to plunge Europe into a profound crisis," said Misha Glenny, a British expert on the Balkans. "Even in Serbia, there will be few people mourning his death because he did great damage to Serbia, as he did to other Yugoslav republics."

Obituary Correction: March 14, 2006, Tuesday The obituary of Slobodan Milosevic on Sunday referred incorrectly in some copies to the year in which his former ally, Milan Babic, testified against him at his trial in The Hague. It was 2002, not 1992.

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A version of this obituary; biography appears in print on March 12, 2006, on Page 1001034 of the National edition with the headline: Slobodan Milosevic, 64, Former Yugoslav Leader Accused of War Crimes, Dies. Order Reprints| Today's Paper|Subscribe

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