BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - Nothing has ever been as it seemed in Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia.
He was a dictator who allowed dissent, a war-maker who claimed to be a guarantor of peace, a burly man with gray hair who looked like a ward boss, dressed like a Midwestern businessman and behaved like a mobster robbing his state blind.
Above all, the 59-year-old Milosevic, who viewed himself and his people as history's winners, was a loser, a man who gambled and lost vast and valuable parts of his country while hundreds of thousands of people were killed or displaced.
He led multiethnic Yugoslavia on a self-destructive path of nationalism that culminated in its disintegration through four Balkan wars in the 1990s.
For his behavior, the former Yugoslav president was indicted as a war criminal by an international tribunal at The Hague in the Netherlands and treated as an outcast by Yugoslavia's new democratic regime, which is eager to rejoin modern Europe.
Around Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic, there was always a sense of danger and despair.
Slobo and Mira were made for each other, the corrupt dictator and his ideologue wife.
For a decade they ruled Yugoslavia and ran it into the ground. For the six months since Milosevic was toppled from power last fall in a popular uprising after he tried to steal another election, they have been stuck in a villa together, two people whose lives were marked with blood and tragedy.
A point to the joke
Even as NATO bombs rained down on Belgrade two years ago during a war to dislodge Milosevic's troops from the Serbian province of Kosovo, a joke made the rounds that seemed to cut to the heart of the couple's pathology and their effect on a once-proud nation.
In the joke, Milosevic and his wife are lying in bed. She tells him that the country's borders must be defended. So, in the darkness, he calls out to Yugoslavia's border guards, who quickly answer him because they are stationed at the corners of the couple's bed.
"The psychologists surmise that he lives in a narcissistic, self-centered place where he is the sun and everything revolves around him," Dusko Doder and Louise Branson wrote in their biography "Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant."
The explanation provides a clue to how this volatile southeastern corner of Europe revolved around Milosevic and then splintered in blood-stained shards during his rule.
"For 10 bloody years, Milosevic, his wife, their fascist supporters and a coterie of domestic traitors have engaged in deception, cynically inciting and justifying crimes, killing, stealing and lying," Milosevic's former information minister, Alesandar Tijanic, said in the biography.
To the West, Milosevic tried to pass himself off as the guarantor of Balkan peace, a posture that worked for a time as the international community patched together an imperfect deal in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, to end a dreadful war in Bosnia.
To his people, he presented himself as a Serbian nationalist who would create a Greater Serbia carved out of Yugoslavia.
In essence, he was nothing more than a corrupt opportunist who inflamed the Balkans and is alleged to have plundered hundreds of millions of dollars from his country.
How a poverty-stricken son of a defrocked Serbian Orthodox priest and a schoolteacher could become an international pariah and symbol of evil is one of the more perplexing personal and political tales of modern times.
Born Aug. 29, 1941, in Pozarevac, Milosevic was a child of both war and communism, living in an unheated and presumably unhappy home. His central Serbian hometown was occupied by the German army during World War II and later became a stronghold for Communist partisans who rallied to Yugoslavia's postwar leader, Josip Broz Tito.
His mother's brother was Gen. Milislav Koljensic, a war hero and member of Tito's military intelligence unit. Koljensic committed suicide in 1948, without bothering to leave a note.
Two years later, Milosevic's parents split up; both later also committed suicide.
At school the teen-age Milosevic, nicknamed Slobo, met his future wife, known as Mira, who was also the product of a shattered family. Her mother, Vera Miletic, was executed in 1943, whether by the Nazis or more likely by Tito's Communists, who may have viewed her as a traitor, no one is quite certain. Mira was also abandoned by her father.
Slobo and Mira became inseparable.
He rose in the political ranks of postwar Yugoslavia, receiving a law degree at Belgrade University, taking economic jobs within the Communist Party and then posts with a state-owned gas company and bank. She became a sociology professor at Belgrade University, cementing a reputation as an ideologist who would later run a strident party, the Yugoslav Left.
In 1986, he made his move for power, gaining a key party post in Serbia, a year later becoming de-facto party boss and later removing his political godfather, Ivan Stambolic, as Serbian president.
In April 1987, Milosevic made a speech that would forever change his career and his country. He was dispatched to the Serbian province of Kosovo, where Serbs were staging riots to protest their treatment at the hands of the majority, ethnic Muslim Albanians.
Standing at the place where Ottoman Turks vanquished the Serbs more than five centuries previously, Milosevic shouted, "No one will ever beat you again."
Those were the words that would light the Balkan tinderbox as Milosevic rode ethnic passion to power after Tito's death.
During a dark decade, Europe looked on as Yugoslavia burned, a multiethnic country ripped with age-old hatreds as war came to Croatia and Bosnia while Slovenia and Macedonia managed to slip mostly unscathed out of the Yugoslav federation. All that was left of Tito's Yugoslavia was Serbia, with Montenegro as an appendage.
The Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian war provided stability, for a time. But an ethnic Albanian uprising that began in Kosovo in 1998 tested, taunted and ultimately destroyed Milosevic, who could not be seen giving up land that is considered the cradle of Serbian civilization.
His troops cracked down severely, raising the indignation of the West, which threatened war if Milosevic didn't move his forces out.
He didn't. The West struck. And Milosevic took his revenge as hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians fled the province.
In the end, the West won the war and smashed Milosevic's country, bombing deep in the heart of Serbia, wrecking buildings, bridges and power plants. He was indicted for war crimes committed in Kosovo; the international tribunal is investigating similar claims against him from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia
Milosevic remained in power after the war, presiding over a state that resembled a gangster's paradise more than a real country. Even Milosevic's son, Marko, reputedly got a piece of the action, peddling cigarettes and alcohol and owning a disco and recreation park in Pozarevac. Corruption, murder and alleged state-sponsored assassination spiraled in a beaten capital.
Milosevic was reputed to have siphoned off millions.
Old tricks don't work
The dictator's old tricks - clamping down on the news media, feeding the masses propaganda on state-run television - didn't work anymore.
The people could see that store shelves were empty, the land ruined and the nation defeated.
In autumn, Milosevic miscalculated and called elections. He was beaten at the polls by his abiding nemesis, a rumpled former law professor named Vojislav Kostunica. When Milosevic and his cronies tried to undo the results of the election, Belgrade's hard-pressed population, aided by thugs from the south, toppled the regime.
The parliament building was left smoldering, and police cars were charred. Milosevic stepped down, saying he wanted to spend some time with his grandchild.
For six months, he lived inside his villa, built for Tito, out of sight but not out of the minds of Yugoslavia's new leaders, Kostunica and Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
Finally, Milosevic was the man of the past. He led a country on a ruinous path and ran out of time, out of friends and out of allies.