Serbia Under Milosevic

Slobo's Rise to Power

This narrative is adapted from excerpts of "The New World of Power" in A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall (Palgrave, 2001).

Slobodan Milosevic rose to power during the disarray following the death of Josip Tito, the socialist strongman who ruled Yugoslavia from its inception in 1945 until 1980. An ambitious but not especially gifted party official, Milosevic followed a communist party colleague, Ivan Stambolic, through a series of directorships in the nationalized gas and banking industries. In 1986 he became head of the Serbian Central Committee, one step behind Stambolic, then the Serb president. Three years later he took his mentor's office, and his portrait replaced Tito's in public places.

A crisis in Kosovo provided the spark for Milosevic's transformation from party hack to Serb champion. In 1987 Milosevic visited the province as tensions flared between majority Albanians and minority Serbs. Near Kosovo Polje, site of the "Field of Blackbirds" where Serbs had slain an Ottoman ruler in 1389, Milosevic gave an impassioned speech to irate Serbs who had battled with Kosovar police, saying that no one should dare beat them. Their acclamation convinced him of the political payoff from appeals to Serb nationalism.

Milosevic's wars and ethnic cleansing programs resulted in thousands of deaths and millions of people left homeless.

Slobodan Milosevic

Kosovo's status had long been an issue for politicians in Belgrade. Tito, the suave manipulator who had kept the country intact for half a century, had agreed to more autonomy for Kosovars and allowed them to fly the Albanian black eagle underneath the Yugoslav tricolor. In 1989 Milosevic rescinded that autonomy, and ethnic Albanians could no longer teach schoolchildren in their own language. The next year Milosevic dismantled their parliament, and Kosovar leaders exiled themselves or went underground.

Until 1995, Milosevic kept Kosovo on the back burner while Belgrade fought successive wars in breakaway Croatia and in Bosnia. In three-way conflicts among Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats, a quarter million people, most of them Bosnian Muslims, were killed. An equal number were wounded, and some 2.3 million people were left homeless. Europe was appalled. After international intervention ended the war and the Dayton Accords created a Serbian entity within Bosnia, Milosevic's attention soon returned to Kosovo.

Realizing that the Dayton Accords contained nothing for Kosovo, the family clans that make up ethnic Albanian society leaned toward the Popular Movement for Kosovo (LPK), a radical group formerly tied to the Albanian communists, and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Since the Croatians and Bosnian Serbs had fought for independence, many Kosovars felt they should too. Since 1993, the KLA had been recruiting in villages, and when neighboring Albania teetered on the brink of collapse in 1997, some of its armories were looted, and guns found their way into Kosovo. By March 1998, Serb police had cracked down on ethnic Albanian fighters, killing eighty people, including women and children.

Peace talks began at Rambouillet, France, in February 1999 to put an end to the Serb-KLA fighting, but the Kosovars were badly divided. Diplomats patched together a "provisional government," but the choices for Kosovo had been reduced to internecine violence or outside intervention. When Milosevic refused to sign an agreement that included concessions for Kosovar autonomy, NATO threatened military action unless he changed his mind. He did not.