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Slobodan Milosevic: Reversal of fortune

On a personal level, Milosevic is said to be aloof with associates and uncomfortable in crowds  

(CNN) -- In the months preceding his dramatic arrest, Slobodan Milosevic had become an increasingly isolated figure in Yugoslavia.

After being ousted from power in a popular uprising in October 2000, he was a politically spent force -- a man wanted for war crimes by prosecutors at The Hague, and for corruption and vote rigging by his own country's authorities.

Confined to his luxury Belgrade villa under 24-hour police guard, he watched as, one by one, his allies were removed from key positions and his influence steadily dwindled.

Although the new Serbian leadership under President Vojislav Kostunica has proved reluctant to hand Milosevic over to the U.N. war crimes panel, it remains determined to hold him accountable in a domestic court for his past crimes.

The man popularly referred to as "Slobo" and "the Butcher of the Balkans" is now languishing in a Belgrade jail, a stunning reversal of fortune for a politician who presided, virtually unchallenged, over his country for a decade.

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Milosevic was born August 29, 1941, in Pozarevac, an industrial city in central Serbia. His parents, both teachers, were of Montenegrin descent (to this day his brother Borislav declares his nationality to be Montenegrin).

As a child, Milosevic was reportedly overweight and a loner, preferring reading and writing poetry to playing sports and socialising with other children.

While Milosevic was studying law at the University of Belgrade, his father, Svetozar, committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. His mother, Stanislava, hanged herself 11 years later, and his uncle, a former general, also took his own life.

After graduating in 1964, Milosevic joined the Communist Party, the customary avenue to power in communist Yugoslavia.

He moved steadily up the career ladder as a business administrator, eventually assuming the leadership of the state-owned gas company before being appointed director of Beobanka, one of the major state-run banks.

He also married Mirjana Markovic, a professor of Marxist sociology at the University of Belgrade, who he had met while they were both at high school.

A fanatical communist, Markovic played a major role in her husband's rise to power, always insisting that "Slobo's picture will one day hang like Tito's."

They have two children, daughter Mira and son Marko, both of whom have made fortunes on the back of their father's political career.

Summoned to calm a riot

Milosevic owed his rise to supreme power in Serbia to an incident at Kosovo Polje, in the southern Serb province of Kosovo.

The family of Mirjana Markovic, Milosevic's wife, has a history of suicide -- as has her husband's family  

The site of a famous battle in 1389 at which the Serb army was defeated by invading Turks, the town retains iconic significance for the Serb people.

In April 1987 Milosevic, then a protege of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, was sent there to help calm a crowd of riotous Serbs at a political meeting outside the town hall.

The mob was livid over what it saw as serious mistreatment by the province's Albanian majority.

Milosevic silenced them with a fiercely nationalistic speech in which he declared, "No one has the right to beat you! No one will ever beat you again."

His virulently pro-Serb stance won the affection of the crowd and saw him assume the mantle of defender of "Greater Serbia."

'Butcher of the Balkans'

By 1989 Milosevic had deposed his former mentor Stambolic to become Serbian president, and in 1990 he orchestrated changes in the Serb constitution to reduce the autonomy of the two Serb provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina.

As a result an anti-Serb backlash erupted in the other Yugoslav republics, and in 1991 Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia all declared independence.

When Muslims and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina also voted to secede, Milosevic supported Serb militias trying to unite Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia in a Greater Serbia.

The ensuing fighting, which lasted three years, made "ethnic cleansing" an international household term and established Milosevic as a key power broker in the region. His participation was considered essential to the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian conflict in 1995.

The following year Milosevic survived mass street protests by a coalition of students and opposition leaders calling themselves "Zajedno" (Together). He stalled for three months before giving the opposition control of towns and cities that were bankrupt and in disarray. Political infighting eventually caused the coalition to unravel, leaving Milosevic firmly in charge.

When the Serbian constitution prevented him from serving another term as president in 1997, he had himself named president of Yugoslavia and invested what had been a ceremonial office with unlimited authority.

In 1998 he launched a programme of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, precipitating a mass exodus of ethnic Albanians and a full-scale military confrontation with NATO and the United States.

The ensuing 1999 Kosovo conflict ended in humiliation for the Serbs and marked the beginning of the slow unravelling of Milosevic's power.

Guile and charm

Right up to his last hours as president, Milosevic remained a supreme political operator, employing a combination of guile and charm to deflect international efforts to bring about his demise.

On the eve of the September 2000 elections, Aleksa Djilas, a Belgrade political analyst and academic, said he believed Milosevic continued to draw political capital from his unerring ability to stymie his opposition.

Milosevic's efforts to abolish Kosovo's autonomy, and NATO's efforts to oppose him, have come at a high price  

"Milosevic is not a genius, he's a good, clever tactician," Djilas said.

Those tactics were particularly evident after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign left Yugoslavia's infrastructure in smouldering ruins.

Many Western observers at the time thought it inevitable that Yugoslav Serbs would rise up and drive Milosevic from office.

Thousands did indeed fill the streets of Belgrade in the summer and autumn of 1999, demonstrating against what then-oppositionist Zoran Djindjic called "the last dictatorship in Europe."

Milosevic was able to turn the tables, however, ridiculing the protesters as "cowards, blackmailers and sycophants," and tightening his grip on the power structure long enough to ride out the demonstrations.

He was a man who thrived on crisis, demonstrating extraordinary sang-froid in the face of even the most adverse circumstances.

When it was announced, for example, in May 1999, that a tribunal in The Hague had indicted him for alleged atrocities in Kosovo, state TV showed a smiling Milosevic condemning "aggression on our country" as he shook hands with Greek Premier Constantine Mitsotakis.

Only with the election of Kostunica as president in 2000 and the subsequent demonstrations that led to Milosevic's ouster did the fašade finally begin to crumble.




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