Miloševic, Slobodan (1941–2006)

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Serbian leader and accused war criminal.

Slobodan Milošević, the most prominent of the defendants at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, was born in Požarevac, in Serbia, on 20 August 1941. He graduated from Belgrade's Faculty of Law (1964), and joined the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY). Milošević made his early career as a technocrat, holding important posts in industry and banking in Serbia. He owed his advancement to Ivan Stambolić (1936–2000), his political mentor and bosom friend from university days. Stambolić rose through the hierarchy of the League of Communists of Serbia (LCS) to become its president, and when he stepped down in 1986 he secured the election of Milošević as his suć destroyed the cessor in the top post. In 1987 Milošević in an act of personal and political betrayal. Milošević was sent to Priština, the capital of Kosovo, where the majority ethnic Albanian population had for years been simmering in revolt against Belgrade. The cause of his visit was a mass demonstration by Kosovo Serbs against alleged persecution aimed at forcing them to leave. Milošević was supposed to calm the situation. Instead, he stepped forward in an open show of support for the crowd, and from this moment on presented himself as the champion of Serb interests within the communist federation. Riding on a tide of nationalist populism, Milošević launched an "antibureaucratic revolution," mass meetings whipped up to intimidate opposition, supported by hysterical campaigns in the mass media and by a large police force. In 1989 Kosovo and Vojvodina, the two autonomous provinces within Serbia, were stripped of the constitutional powers conferred on them by Tito (Josip Broz, 1892–1980) in 1974 and subjected to direct rule from Belgrade.

Slovenia and Croatia reacted by paralyzing the workings of federal government, effectively killing off the LCY at its aborted Fourteenth Congress in January 1990. By April 1992 the disintegration of Yugoslavia was in full spate. Milošević now ruled the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), and Sarajevo was under siege by Serb forces that quickly acquired an evil reputation as they overran three-quarters of Bosnia. Miloševic career of Stambolić decimated Tito's professional, constitutionalist officer corps by means of repeated purges. The Yugoslav Army in Croatia, and its offshoot, the Bosnian Serb Army, were frequently involved in joint operations with infamous paramilitary units, gangsters greedy for booty and with an utter contempt for international law, and the rot spread to the regular units. The Western powers imposed drastic sanctions, bringing the economy to its knees—inflation hit 286 billion percent in 1993. Milošević was forced to withdraw his active support for the rebellious Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, and won limited relief from sanctions by cooperating with international plans for peace in Bosnia, which came to fruition in the Dayton Agreements of December 1995. However, he then escalated the pressure on the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, in a campaign of "pacification" that provoked massive NATO airstrikes in the name of humanitarian intervention. After seventy-eight days of continuous NATO bombing of targets in Kosovo and Serbia proper, all Serb forces were pulled out of Kosovo unconditionally (10 June 1999).

Milošević is commonly called a dictator, but the epithet does not explain the basis of his power. In 1990 Serbia moved to a multiparty system. Milošević had to submit himself to a number of elections, and there was never any shortage of opposition to his rule. The problem was that pluralist politics demand a pluralist society to make democracy work. The League of Communists of Serbia was rechristened the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), but the change was one of name only. The old communist bureaucracy was honeycombed with privilege and corruption, and the SPS simply took over its control of all major institutions, including state property, so that business continued as usual. Milošević's power was extra-institutional, based on interlocking networks of cronies at all formal levels of political representation. Votes were bought and sold, and where that did not work fraud, manipulation, and police harassment supplied the answer. The police apparatus became a kind of personal fiefdom of the SPS, and was increasingly enmeshed with organized crime, especially after Western sanctions made giant smuggling operations a normal arm of government. Last but not least, the domestic opposition to Milošević was divided, and Western intervention bolstered his appeal to many Serbs whose national pride was affronted.

Milošević was finally dislodged from office on 5 October 2000. His downfall came about as a result of a mass movement of citizens who found a way to take command of the streets of Belgrade. He was removed to The Hague the following June under controversial circumstances and charged with two counts of genocide and ten counts of crimes against humanity, to note only the most serious indictments. His trial raised complex questions of legal proof and international law not encountered since Nuremberg. Critics argue that the International Criminal Tribunal is dispensing biased justice. Most Serbs saw it this way and bitterly resented the sense of being tried as a nation in the person of Milošević. His trial also raised thorny questions about the complicity of the Western powers in the breakup of sovereign communist Yugoslavia; their failure to stop the killing once it had begun; and the international legality of the NATO bombing. After four years of dogged defense against all charges, Milošević was found dead in his cell on 11 March 2006.

See alsoBosnia-Herzegovina; Crime and Justice; Karadžić, Radovan; Mladić, Ratko; Sarajevo; Serbia; Yugoslavia.


Benson, Leslie. Yugoslavia: A Concise History. Revised and updated edition, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, U.K., and New York, 2004. Chapters 8–10 give a succinct, analytical account of the background to the rise and fall of Milošević.

Cohen, Lenard J. Serpent in the Bosom: The Rise and Fall of Slobodan Milošević. Boulder, Colo., 2001.

Doder, Dusko, and Louise Branson. Milošević: Portrait of a Tyrant. New York, 1999.

LeBor, Adam. Milošević: A Biography. London, 2002.

Thomas, Raju G. C., ed. Yugoslavia Unraveled: Sovereignty, Self-Determination, Intervention. Lanham, Md., and Oxford, U.K., 2003. Chapters 7, 9, and 10 are recommended in the context of Miloševic responsibility forwar crimes.

Thomas, Robert. Serbia under Milošević: Politics in the 1990s. London, 1998.

Leslie Benson