Milosevic, pragmatic strongman

BELGRADE, Jul 28, 2000 -- (Reuters) Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, whose parliament on Thursday ordered September elections, is a pragmatist who embraced war and peace, communism and nationalism, when they seemed the surest routes to power.

In an apparent bid to secure his grip for years to come, the announcement of the September 24 poll date follows the approval of controversial constitutional amendments which could allow Milosevic two more four-year terms.

Milosevic, 58, is a former communist functionary and onetime chief of the state-owned gas company. He muscled his way to the top of Yugoslav politics in the power vacuum left by the 1980 death of post-World War Two Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito.

Through 13 turbulent years that saw the collapse of multi-ethnic Yugoslavia and terrible wars in Bosnia and Croatia, Milosevic consolidated his iron grip, first as Serbia's president and then as president of the Yugoslav federation.

At times Milosevic has appeared to dream of carving a mini-empire for all Serbs out of the bloodstained Balkans.

But he withdrew support for ethnic kin in breakaway Yugoslav republics - Croatia and Bosnia - when they became too costly to save.

His crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a region crucially important to Serbs for historical and emotional reasons, ended by bringing down the wrath of NATO last year.

After a destructive bombing campaign, Milosevic was forced to accept NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo and was indicted as a war criminal by the United Nations tribunal in the Hague.


But careful control of the Serbian media and deft political footwork at home kept him secure, despite the resounding defeat of the Greater Serbia project.

Milosevic made his name in Yugoslavia by his pledge to protect Kosovo Serbs, who were protesting at Tito's delicately balanced system that played one ethnic group against another and gave Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority wide-ranging autonomy.

Milosevic's pledges were a prelude not only to revoking Kosovo's autonomy in 1989, fuelling separatist sentiment, but to the open ethnic conflict that tore apart the six-republic federation in Europe's bloodiest war for half a century.

Milosevic played the nationalist card in the Croatian and Bosnian wars, but allowed agents like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic to do the dirty work.

They were dropped when close association became uncomfortable.

His most prominent role on the world stage came in 1995 when he consorted with world leaders, including U.S. President Bill Clinton, for the signing ceremonies of the Dayton peace accord that ended the Bosnian war.

It was a high point for Milosevic who, according to one observer at the talks, "seemed to view himself as the equal of the people with whom he was dealing".

Showing a taste for cigars and good whisky, Milosevic exuded a sense of cheery bonhomie on the international stage.

But Western goodwill evaporated as Kosovo slipped closer to a state of all-out war last year and Yugoslavia, still hit by wartime UN sanctions, slid deeper and deeper into economic despair.

Milosevic faced his biggest domestic challenge in 1996 from a loose grouping of students and a coalition of mostly moderate opposition leaders calling themselves "Zajedno" (Together).

The coalition mounted daily protest marches for three months, rallying up to 500,000 people at the peak of a campaign against local election fraud.


But through shrewd manipulation, including giving the opposition control of mostly bankrupt towns and cities, Milosevic managed to split the coalition, which dissolved into infighting.

Later in 1997, Milosevic finessed his way around a law barring him from running again for president of Serbia by being elected president of Yugoslavia. He typically turned the formerly figurehead post into the seat of real power.

The latest constitutional changes would allow Milosevic to win a new period in office through direct elections when his present term expires next year. The president will be able to stay in office for a maximum of two more four-year terms.

Under previous rules, the president was elected by parliament and could not run twice.

Milosevic was born in Pozarevac, southeast of Belgrade, in 1941, the son of a theology teacher.

A lawyer by training, Milosevic is believed to be heavily influenced by his wife, Mirjana, a Belgrade University sociology lecturer and neo-communist. They have a son and a daughter who are prominent in the Belgrade society scene.

He rarely gives interviews or appears in public.

But despite everything, for many Serbs he remains the outstanding figure of his time, a man who would right historical wrongs and put Serbia back on the road to greatness.

Original article