BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- If there is a lesson to be learned from the recent history of the Balkans, it is this: Never underestimate the survival skills of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Beginning in the 1980s, he successfully exploited ethnic fears to become the most powerful leader in the region. He helped split Yugoslavia, helped trigger a war that lasted nearly four years and turned Serbia into a pariah state with a shattered economy.
Despite that record -- and despite the past three weeks of street protests against his government -- Milosevic has managed to remain in power.
With a small cadre of advisers, including his wife, Mirjana Markovic, he continues to try to manipulate events. He oversees an 80,000-member police force that looms in the background even as demonstrators clog the streets with their hopes, dreams and whistling, the Eastern Europe equivalent of booing.
"He believes in only one thing, the 'Mafiaocracy' of Milosevic," says Ilia Djukic, a former Yugoslavia foreign minister now aligned with the opposition coalition called "Together." "He is concerned with survival, the power game. And he has probably never been so vulnerable."
The crisis for Milosevic was triggered last month when opposition victories in local elections were annulled by a court at the urging of his ruling Socialist Party. Demonstrators then took to the streets.
His government began backpedaling last week, announcing that the election issue would be reviewed by the Supreme Court. Two independent radio stations were reopened. A bid was made to buy off the voters by paying out overdue pensions and student stipends. Milosevic also sought to distance himself from senior party officials, and sought to make them shoulder the blame for the election debacle.
The court was expected to announce its ruling today.
Milosevic, a former bank executive, has ruled in the old, heavy-handed Communist style, as if the state were meant to benefit his family and his advisers. Markovic, his wife, who has been dubbed by her critics "The Red Witch," runs her own political party and publishes a bimonthly magazine in which she rants against some of her enemies.
Their son, Marko, 22, runs a summertime-only nightclub in the Milosevics' hometown of Pozarevac, an hour southeast of Belgrade, which has become a hangout for Balkan hoodlums. A daughter, Marija, 33, runs the country's most popular radio station.
But Serbia's voters have known for years about the family's vices and virtues.
In 1991, Milosevic quashed protests in Belgrade with troops and water cannons. A year later, running on a platform that included better roads and trains and happier economic times, he won a presidential election.
What's different about this year's protests?
For one, the economy is still in the tank despite the lifting of a United Nations trade embargo; it was imposed because of Serbia's economic and military support for the rebel Bosnian Serbs during the Balkan war. More than half the population is unemployed. The annual inflation rate is 90 percent. The most nationalistic part of the population is also enraged that the Bosnian Serbs were humiliated on the battlefield in the last months of the war, in 1995.
But the protesters -- students, retirees and the unemployed -- are unlikely to have enough strength to topple Milosevic by themselves. They would probably have to be joined by laborers and office workers declaring a general strike -- which emerged yesterday as a possibility, as several unions said their members may strike this week.
"He's probing now to see what the price is to get the protesters off the streets," says a Western diplomat. "He is trying to erode some of the core support of the opposition. If he can erode it and cause the size of crowds to diminish, he has not only won; he has demoralized the opposition."
Overcoming early adversity
It wouldn't be the first time that Milosevic and his wife, known to all as Slobo and Mira, have come back from adversity.
Milosevic's father, mother and an uncle all committed suicide. Markovic's mother was a partisan Communist fighter who was hunted down, imprisoned and murdered by the Nazis during World War II. After being raised for a time in the woods, young Marokovic was taken in by her grandparents in Pozarevac.
The couple met as schoolchildren, fell in love with a hug in a library, and went off to college at the University of Belgrade.
"He was handsome, but he had no friends," says Seska Stanojlovic, who knew the couple in Pozarevac but who now writes for a journal opposing Milosevic. "His only company was Mira. He was also arrogant, as he is today."
"She lived in a state of permanent frustration," Stanojlovic adds. "She carried that weight of being the daughter of a national hero."
After graduating from college, Milosevic climbed the political ladder. He served in a variety of economic and information posts in Belgrade, before running a factory and then a leading Belgrade bank. Trips to the United States enabled him to polish his English.
Power push began in '87
In 1987, after heading the Serbian party for more than a year, he made his bid for power. He supported the political rights of the Serbs living in Kosovo, thereby stoking ethnic rivalries for political gain. It would mark the beginning of the end of a multiethnic Yugoslavia.
Milosevic found that "the best way to escape the wrath of the masses was to lead them," wrote Aleksa Djilas in the journal Foreign Affairs. "It was an act of political cannibalism Milosevic reinvigorated the party by forcing it to embrace nationalism."
Milosevic's brand of nationalism ran through the rest of Yugoslavia like a virus, as leaders in the other republics played to ethnic hatreds. The country unraveled and plunged into Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II.
Despite the crippling economic sanctions, Milosevic managed to hang on to power. Moreover, the West turned to him as it sought an endgame to the war in Bosnia. It was Milosevic who bought the Bosnian Serbs to heel and who signed the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.
But now that a NATO force has patrolled Bosnia for more than a year, the West is less dependent on Milosevic to control the Bosnian Serbs. And if he can't control Belgrade, how could he control the Bosnian Serbs?
In the current crisis, the United States and its allies are keeping the pressure on Milosevic, demanding that he use no force against the demonstrators. He repeated a pledge yesterday to allow the protests to continue.
So the marches continue.
"Whatever happens, nothing will ever be the same again," Djukic says. "It may be too late to stop the protests."
Pub Date: 12/08/96