Slobodan Milosevic


The southern Slavic states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia begin to merge into a single nation following the First World War. But the legacy of a 400-year occupation by the Islamic Ottoman Empire and traditional tension between Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians frustrate attempts for unity. Following the Second World War, Yugoslav communists led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito take control of the government, declaring the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia on 29 November 1945.

The veneer of Yugoslav stability begins to crumble when Tito dies on 4 May 1980. The prosperous northern states of Croatia and Slovenia start to agitate for autonomy. Macedonia and the Muslim majorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian province of Kosovo repeat the call. Serbia has political power under the federation and does not want change. The poorer southern state of Montenegro supports the centralised federation and backs Serbia. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 20 August 1941 in Pozarevac, 60 km southeast of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. He is the second son of a former Orthodox priest from Montenegro and a Serbian schoolmistress. Both parents commit suicide, his father in 1962, 15 years after abandoning the family to return to Montenegro, and his mother in 1973. An uncle, his mother's brother, also takes his own life.

While attending high school in Pozarevac Milosevic meets his future wife, Mirjana Markovic. A doctrinaire Marxist who comes to be known as the Red Witch and the Lady Macbeth of the Balkans, Markovic has family connections to the upper echelons of the Tito government. She becomes a driving force behind her husband. The couple marry in 1965. They have two children, Marija and Marko.

1959 - Milosevic joins the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, renamed the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) in 1963. He becomes increasingly politically active while studying for a law degree at the University of Belgrade, earning the nickname Little Lenin during his time as the head of ideology section of the Communist Party branch at the university.

1964 - He graduates from the University of Belgrade with a degree in law and begins a career in business administration, becoming head of Technogas, the state-owned gas company, in 1968. In 1978 he is appointed as president of Beobanka, the United Bank of Belgrade, where he serves until 1983. While with the bank he travels to Paris and New York and learns to speak English.

1974 - Changes to the Yugoslav constitution loosen the grip of the federal government on the constituent republics, which become de facto sovereign states. The Serbian provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo (where the majority of the population are ethnic Albanian Muslims) are given autonomy.

In response to the loosening of the federation, Serb minorities living in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo claim they have been denied national rights, left unprotected and singled out for unfair treatment.

1984 - Milosevic enters politics full-time, becoming leader of the local Belgrade Communist Party. His direct style and advocacy of Serbian nationalism appeal to the Serbian public.

1986 - He is elected leader of the League of Communists of Serbia (LCS). Pursuing his nationalist agenda, he calls on the federal government to restore full Serbian control over the Vojvodina and Kosovo and advocates the retention of the centralised federal political and economic system. He is reelected leader of the LCS in 1988.

Behind the scenes he begins to fill key positions in the LCS and the media with his supporters.

1987 - On 24 April Milosevic travels to Kosovo to hear the grievances of the Serb minority living there. When he tells a gathering of Serbs in the small town of Kosovo Polje, "From now on, no one has the right to beat you," he is recognised almost overnight as the chief spokesman for nationalist Serbs across the federation.

Kosovo Polje is close to the battleground at Gazimestan where the Serbs were defeated by the Ottomans in 1389. Proximity to the battleground, which is considered by Serbs to be a sacred site, amplifies the nationalist resonance of Milosevic's statement. The Serb nationalist rhetoric, and Milosevic's profile, is further heightened by media coverage and rallies organised by his supporters.

In September Milosevic uses a meeting of the LCS to purge the party of his rivals, including his former mentor Serbian President Ivan Stambolic. Further purges of dissenting voices in the LCS and the media entrench his control.

1988 - Milosevic organises "rallies of solidarity", uses the media to promote his nationalist agenda, and conspires to have the ethnic Albanian leaders of Vojvodina and Kosovo driven from office by violent Serb nationalist protests (in October and November respectively). His popularity climbs.

Meanwhile, the Federal Cabinet is unable to cope with a worsening economy and the rising push for autonomy from the Yugoslav republics and their provinces. The entire Cabinet resigns in October. In January 1989 the LCY votes to end its political monopoly, allowing multiparty elections across the federation.

1989 - Milosevic is elected president of Serbia on 8 May. He immediately acts to oppose the movement for autonomy. The Serbian constitution is changed to curtail the independence of the Kosovo and Vojvodina provinces. Both provinces are reabsorbed into Serbia.

On 28 June Milosevic returns to Kosovo Polje to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the 1389 battle at Gazimestan. Addressing a crowd of hundreds of thousands of Serbs he says, "Once we were brave and dignified. ... Six centuries later we are again in battles and quarrels. ... They are not armed battles, though such things should not be excluded yet."

Serbs from minority enclaves throughout Yugoslavia are recruited to push the Milosevic line. The media is muzzled and opponents intimidated. Tensions rise.

Anti-Serb sentiments begin to grow in the other republics, which accuse Milosevic of plotting to build a "Greater Serbia" encompassing the Serb enclaves. His popularity at home reaches its zenith.

1990 - The LCY relinquishes power at the federal level, splitting into separate party organisations in each of the republics. Milosevic transforms the LCS into the Socialist Party of Serbia on 16 July and is elected as its leader.

In multiparty elections held in December noncommunist groups win government in both Croatia and Slovenia, while in Serbia Milosevic is returned to office with a huge majority. He is reelected Serbian president in 1992.

1991 - In June, after autonomy negotiations break down, Slovenia and Croatia unilaterally declare their independence. The Federal Government responds by ordering the Serb-dominated army into Slovenia and Croatia to suppress the secessionists.

Behind the scenes Milosevic promises the Slovenes that they will be allowed to secede if they do not oppose his plan to annex Serb-dominated areas in Croatia. After a 10-day war the federal forces withdraw from Slovenia. Up to 100 have died and hundreds have been injured in what has essentially been a sham conflict.

The war in Croatia is fought in earnest over seven months, ending in January 1992 with a cease-fire. About 20,000 die and hundreds of thousands are driven from their homes. Croatia loses more than one-third of its territory and famous ancient cities such as Dubrovnik are largely destroyed.

It is later reported that at secret talks held during the year Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman have agreed to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina between their respective nations.

Meanwhile, Macedonia declares its independence in September 1991.

1992 - Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim and Croatian majority vote to secede from the federation. The country is proclaimed an independent republic on 3 March. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, now comprised of only Serbia and Montenegro, has effectively come to an end. On 27 April Serbia and Montenegro formally agree to unite as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosnian-Serb minority, who boycotted the secession vote, rebel. With Milosevic's backing and the aid of Yugoslav Army troops, Bosnian-Serb militias, led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, begin to forcibly seize territory, eventually taking control of two-thirds of the state. The conflict soon spills into Croatia.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia lasts for three years, causing devastation in those countries and deprivation in Serbia, which suffers from trade sanctions applied by the United Nations (UN).

As the war escalates the Bosnian-Serb militias attempt to expel Bosnia's Muslim and Croat population from the Serb-held territories in an orchestrated program of "ethnic cleansing".

Muslims and Croats are either forced into exile as refugees, held as hostages for use in prisoner exchanges, or placed in concentration camps. Many are summarily executed. An estimated 20,000 Muslim women and girls are thrown into rape camps.

In the opening months of the war 100,000 or more people are killed and hundreds of thousands are dispossessed. Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, is placed under siege, with Serbian artillery positioned in the surrounding hills bombing the city's streets and marketplaces while Serbian snipers target the unlucky and unwary.

Croatian forces attempt to take advantage of the situation and seize territory in Bosnia. They are resisted by the Bosnian-Muslims.

Meanwhile, the Serbian economy undergoes a rapid collapse, with inflation skyrocketing out of control.

1994 - In March Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia reach an agreement to form a joint federation and end their hostilities. The Croatian and Bosnian-Muslim forces join in opposition to the Serbs, launching an offensive in April and May.

In December the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces a cease-fire in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the withdrawal of Serbian artillery. The cease-fire holds until March 1995.

1995 - The Serb forces are brought to a standstill in Bosnia. To the west, they are overwhelmed by the Croatian Army and driven, along with almost the entire Serbian-Croat population, out of Croatia.

In May NATO launches air strikes against Serb targets after the Serb forces refuse to comply with a UN ultimatum to remove all heavy weapons from a 12-mile exclusion zone around Sarajevo. Joint Croatian-Bosnian operations and further air strikes in May, August and September eject Serbian forces from large areas of western Bosnia.

In the east of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnian-Serb militias aided by Yugoslav Army troops take the UN "safe area" of Srebrenica in July. Over 40,000 Bosnian-Muslims who had sought safety there are expelled. Between 5,000 and 8,000 are executed, allegedly on the order of Ratko Mladic.

The siege of Sarajevo ends in mid-September when the Bosnian-Serbs agree to withdraw their heavy weapons. Approximately 10,000 people have been killed in Sarajevo during the siege, including about 1,500 children.

On 21 November Milosevic, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman ratify the Dayton accord for peace in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic is forced to accept the accord when Milosevic closes the border with Bosnia-Herzegovina and turns his back on the Bosnian-Serbs.

Under the accord, Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Bosnian-Serb mini-state (the Republika Srpska) under a unified presidency but with separate governments. The trade sanctions against Serbia are lifted.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has cost up to 200,000 lives. As many as three million have been driven from their homes and tens of thousands are missing.

1996 - Criticism of Milosevic begins to grow in Serbia. When he overturns opposition victories at local elections held in November large protests break out and he is almost deposed. Milosevic backs down and agrees to respect the election results.

1997 - Milosevic becomes president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) in July, serving until 2000, when he is forced to step down. As president he is also commander-in-chief of the federal armed forces.

1998 - Ethnic Albanians living in the Serbian province of Kosovo recommence their campaign for independence. The situation quickly degenerates into armed conflict between federal security forces and the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

In September the UN Security Council adopts a resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire in Kosovo and the commencement of talks. When NATO authorises air strikes against Serb military targets Milosevic relents and agrees to withdraw some of the Serbian forces from Kosovo.

1999 - In March Serbia refuses to sign a peace deal giving autonomy to Kosovo and launches a major offensive against the KLA. On 24 March NATO responds, beginning a prolonged campaign of air strikes against targets inside Serbia. Milosevic retaliates by ordering a program of ethnic cleansing of the Kosovo-Albanians. Hundreds of thousands are forced to flee as refugees.

In May the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague indicts Milosevic for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo.

The NATO bombing continues for 78 days until Milosevic capitulates in early June. Serb forces withdraw from Kosovo and UN peacekeepers are sent in. Up to 10,000 have died, thousands are missing and 740,000 ethnic Albanians have been forced into exile.

Milosevic clings on to power in Serbia, despite mounting protests and the extension of trade sanctions. Montenegro, meanwhile, begins calling for greater autonomy within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

In July it is reported that United States President Bill Clinton has authorised the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to initiate covert and overt measures to topple Milosevic. According to 'Time' magazine, these measures could include the "disruption" of Milosevic's private financial transactions and the fomenting of greater anti-Milosevic sentiment within Yugoslavia.

Opposition groups within Serbia receive substantial funding from the US and a US$5 million reward is offered for information leading to the arrest or conviction of anyone indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal, including Milosevic.

Meanwhile, a CIA psychiatric profile of Milosevic concludes that he has "a malignant narcissistic personality ... strongly self-centred, vain and full of self-love".

2000 - Milosevic strikes back at his opponents. He amends the constitution to enable him to serve two more terms as president and makes the position subject to direct election. However, he has miscalculated.

In presidential elections held on 24 September Milosevic is defeated overwhelmingly by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, a coalition of 18 parties led by Vojislav Kostunica. Milosevic refuses to accept the results and calls for a run-off election.

The Democratic Opposition turns to the people, urging them to force Milosevic to respect the result. The country is brought to a standstill by mass demonstrations led by the student organisation Otpor and a general strike led by coal miners. On 4 October convoys of Serbs from around the country descend on Belgrade en masse, breaking through police blockades to gather in front of the parliament. When the security forces at the parliament ignore orders and step aside, the people take over the building.

Faced with this situation and with Russia's backing of Kostunica, Milosevic finally agrees to step down. Kostunica becomes president on 7 October. In elections for the Serbian Parliament held in December, Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) wins only 14% of the vote.

2001 - Milosevic is arrested and imprisoned by the Serb Government on 1 April on charges of abuse of power and corruption. He is accused of smuggling gold bullion out of the country and of having arranged the assassinations of political opponents.

On 28 June, the anniversary of the 1389 battle at Kosovo Polje, he is extradited to The Hague to face the UN Criminal Tribunal for his role in the atrocities committed by Serbian forces during the Kosovo conflict. He is charged with the murder of 900 Kosovo-Albanians and the deportation of 740,000 more. He is the first head of state ever to be brought before an international war crimes court.

At the end of November the indictment is extended to include acts of genocide committed during the war in Bosnia.

Milosevic is allowed two rooms at The Hague, one a three by five metre cell in the high-security men's prison, where he sleeps, and the other an "office" at the tribunal where he receives visitors and interviews witnesses. He is allowed a fax machine, a telephone, a printer, and a computer, but is denied access to the internet.

2002 - Milosevic's trial at The Hague begins on 12 February. He faces a total of 66 counts for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and regulations of war in Croatia (1991), Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992-95) and Kosovo (1999), including one count of genocide and one of complicity in genocide for the Srebrenica massacre. The indictments are merged to allow one continuous hearing, with those relating to Kosovo to be heard first. Link to trial website.

A panel of three international judges will hear the trial. There is no jury.

Milosevic, who holds a law degree but has no prior courtroom experience, refuses to enter a plea and insists on conducting his own defence. He dismisses the charges against him as politically motivated lies and says that he does not recognise the court.

The trial judges enter a plea of "not guilty" on Milosevic's behalf and appoint three international lawyers as amici curiae (friends of the court) to help ensure that he gets a fair trial.

On 25 July The Hague reveals that two doctors appointed by the tribunal have found that Milosevic suffers from high blood pressure and a heart condition. The trial is subsequently interrupted and delayed on numerous occasions because of Milosevic's ill-health.

Despite his health concerns, Milosevic continues to smoke and takes little exercise. He is also reluctant to take prescribed drugs to control his blood pressure, saying they make him drowsy.

2003 - On 19 January Milosevic is reelected as president of the SPS, even though he remains in custody in The Hague and had requested that someone else be given the post.

In April Serbian police charge Milosevic with "inciting" the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic in August 2000 and "organising a criminal group" that attempted to kill the opposition leader Vuk Draskovic in June of the same year.

The tribunal hears damning evidence against Milosevic when retired US General and former NATO Commander Wesley Clark provides testimony in closed sessions conducted on 15 and 16 December.

Recalling an exchange with Milosevic relating to the massacre at Srebrenica, Clark says, "I simply asked him. I said, 'Mr President, you say you have so much influence over Bosnian-Serbs, but how is it then, if you have such influence, that you allowed General Mladic to kill all those people in Srebrenica?' And Milosevic looked at me and he paused for a moment. He then said, 'Well, General Clark,' he said, 'I warned Mladic not to do this, but he didn't listen to me."

According to Clark, this admission "to me was so stunning at that point that I then recall telling the delegation later about this, because I viewed that as an admission that he had foreknowledge of Srebrenica. And what I could not tell was whether or not he was telling the truth when he said he told him (Mladic) not to do it and he didn't listen. But I did take it as an acknowledgement of foreknowledge of what was going to happen at Srebrenica."

Clark also provides testimony on a conversation with Milosevic concerning Kosovo. "President Milosevic was musing philosophically about this," Clark says, "And he turned to me and said, 'General Clark,' he said, 'We know how to handle these murderers, these rapists, these criminals.' He said, 'We've done this before.' I said, 'Well, when?' He said, 'In Drenica in 1946.' And I said, 'What did you do?' He said, 'We killed them.' He said, 'We killed them all.' I was stunned at the vehemence with which he spoke, and I just looked at him."

2004 - The case for the prosecution against Milosevic concludes on 25 February after receiving evidence from about 290 witnesses over 300 trial days.

Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte concedes that her team has not produced a "smoking gun in the count of genocide", but insists that the "fact" that genocide occurred has been proven.

Del Ponte later says that the prosecution will maintain the count of genocide. "We insist that the evidence we have collected and will present in court is enough to obtain the conviction of Milosevic for genocide," she says.

Milosevic begins his defence on 31 August. "Accusations levelled against me are an unscrupulous lie and also a tireless distortion of history," he says in his opening statement. "Everything has been presented in a lopsided manner in order to protect those who are truly responsible."

Among those "truly responsible", Milosevic lists the US, the European Union, Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, Tony Blair, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the Vatican, fascists, neo-Nazis, the "Croatian Ustashe", "Albanian terrorists", "Bosnian Islamic fundamentalists", the mullahs of Iran, the Hezbollah of Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia.

"The Serb people, the Serb leadership and I personally made every attempt to preserve the Yugoslav community. We were on the side of the law," Milosevic says.

"Yugoslavia didn't simply disappear into thin air. It was destroyed violently by a plan and by a war that is still being waged. ... The war in Yugoslavia was not started by Serbs or in Serbia. It was started by Ustashe, neo-Nazis, Islamic fundamentalists, and Albanian terrorists. It is not hard to prove."

According to Milosevic, the tribunal has been established "with the sole purpose in mind of covering up the mistakes of failed Western policy".

"The fratricidal war in Yugoslavia was instigated and supported precisely by those who established this court of yours. ...

"They call themselves the 'international community', but in the territory of Yugoslavia - Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo - they supported a totalitarian chauvinist elite, terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists, neo-Nazis, whose objective was an ethnically pure state. That is to say, a state without any Serbs."

2005 - On 1 June the tribunal is shown a videotape of six prisoners from Srebrenica being executed by members of the Skorpions, a police commando unit tied to the secret service branch of the Serbian Ministry of Interior. The tape is considered to provide incontrovertible proof that Serbia was involved in the massacres at Srebrenica.

Milosevic denies that the Skorpions were under his control and questions the authenticity of the videotape. "This footage has no connection with Srebrenica at all," he says. "It is obvious that the Skorpions were not a part of the Serbian police force in 1995."

On 9 June the Bosnian daily newspaper 'Oslobodjenje' reports that the Bosnian-Serb Government has admitted that police from Serbia did take part in the massacre at Srebrenica.

According to the paper, the admission is contained in the latest report by the Srebrenica Commission. "The Bosnian-Serb Interior Ministry in cooperation with the panel has confirmed the involvement in the Srebrenica massacre of joint forces of the Serbian Interior Ministry," the paper quotes the report as saying.

On 18 July the Special Court in Belgrade convicts Milosevic's paramilitary commander, his secret police chief and five others for the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic in 2000. The seven are sentenced to jail terms of between 15 and 40 years.

According to Chief Judge Dragoljub Albijanic, Milosevic ordered the deaths of Stambolic and then opposition leader Vuk Draskovic because he believed they threatened his grip on power.

2006 - Milosevic's trial comes to an abrupt halt on the morning of 11 March when he is found dead in his cell. He has died in his bed from heart failure at some time between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.. There are no suspicious circumstances.

His trial is officially terminated on 14 March. After 467 days of sittings it ends without a verdict.

Milosevic's body is returned to Serbia but is denied a state funeral. The coffin is placed on public display in the Museum of the Revolution in Belgrade before being transported to Milosevic's home town of Pozarevac for burial on 18 March.

The funeral procession stops in front of the Parliament in the centre of Belgrade for an unofficial ceremony that is attended by more than 50,000. At dusk Milosevic is buried under a tree in the back garden of his family home.

Neither his wife, who is in self-imposed exile in Russia and faces charges of abuse of power and fraud if she returns to Serbia, nor his two children attend the funeral.


On 21 May 2006 Montenegro votes to split from the federation with Serbia. Montenegro formally declares its independence on 3 June.

In June Serbia's Supreme Court finds that Milosevic ordered the murder of Serb President Ivan Stambolic in August 2000.

"The primary court defined and showed, and the Supreme Court also accepts, that Slobodan Milosevic gave an order for the murder of Stambolic and (then opposition leader) Draskovic as his political opponents," the court finds.

On 17 February 2008 Kosovo unilaterally declares its independence from Serbia. The disintegration of Yugoslavia is now complete.


From a commentary by Paddy Ashdown, Bosnia's international administrator, published in the 'Observer', 12 March 2006:

"I met Milosevic on many occasions and of course I gave evidence against him in The Hague. He was a tough, clever, charismatic leader. He was called a nationalist, but he wasn't. He was an opportunist who rode the nationalist bandwagon. There is no doubt he was personally responsible as the architect, along with Franjo Tudjman, of the Balkans tragedy of the Nineties. He had seductive qualities which were sufficiently powerful to seduce many Western states who for far too long believed him to be part of the solution rather than the problem. ... I think he will be remembered as an extremely malign influence - a clever man whose undoubted intelligence was put to malevolent effect - and as the architect not only of the humiliation of his nation, the great nation of Serbs, but also their shame and the deaths of tens of thousands."

From the 'Observer' editorial 12 March 2006:

"In the end, if there is a real lesson to be learned, it is about the seductive power of dictatorship. An unstable but charming killer fooled so many people. He seduced diplomats and wooed politicians. He beguiled the Serbian public. The international community will again need to confront charismatic leaders with inflammatory agendas. It will again be tempted to appease them. Milosevic's death is a timely reminder of the lesson burned into an older generation of Europeans scarred by genocide: never again."

From the 'Guardian' obituary by Ian Traynor, 13 March 2006:

"Before the wars started in 1991, Warren Zimmerman, the late US ambassador in Belgrade told me: 'Milosevic can utter the most egregious falsehoods with the appearance of the utmost sincerity. He is a Machiavellian character for whom truth has no inherent value of its own. It's there to be manipulated.' ... The other constant leitmotifs of the Milosevic career were treachery and betrayal on a grand scale ... from Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic ... to his patron Stambolic ... not to mention the Serbs of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo whom he used and encouraged for the wars before simply dropping them when the going got tough."

From the 'Guardian' editorial 13 March 2006:

"Tactically shrewd, strategically inept and morally void, he went down the road to war without ever really considering why he was doing so, what the human costs would be, and whether there was any real chance of building an enlarged Serbia on the ruins of the Yugoslav federation. "

From 'The Washington Post' editorial 14 March 2006:

"He bombarded Serbs with lies and hateful demagoguery about their supposed victimisation at the hands of Croats, Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians, and he convinced them that the only solution was a Greater Serbia created through war and ethnic cleansing. ... More than is generally recognised, at least in his own country, he was personally responsible for the most destructive conflict, and the most terrible atrocities, recorded in Europe since World War II. There were other protagonists and other criminals, some of them Croatian, Bosnian and Albanian. But without Mr Milosevic the Yugoslav wars wouldn't have happened."