The dysfunctional couple that destroyed the Balkans.

Last march, as NATO was preparing to unleash a massive air campaign against Yugoslavia and Serbian authorities were poised to empty the province of hundreds of thousands of Albanians, Slobodan Milosevic began phoning his old chums from high school, asking them to drop by. I'm bored, he explained.

Welcome to the parallel universe inhabited by Milosevic and his wife, Mirjana Markovic. In the former Yugoslavia, more than three million people have been driven from their homes; hundreds of thousands of lives have been diminished or destroyed. Serbia itself is reeling in the wake of NATO air strikes; factories, bridges, schools, roads--practically the entire economic infrastructure of the country--lie in ruins. Yet Serbia's strongman appears not to notice. Instead, goaded by his ambitious wife, Milosevic simply declares that black is white and that his stewardship has been a successful one, and he seems to believe his own lies.


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According to this vision, Serbia is alone in its brave stand against American domination. As for the couple's understanding of the United States' motives, it is perhaps best captured by the recollection of an acquaintance who has since broken ties with them. "We were once sitting in the living room of their house," the acquaintance confides. "Sloba leaned over and said, 'Do you really believe that Clinton is the president of America? You're very naive. Clinton is just a marionette. America is ruled by one group, composed of representatives of the Mafia, the military industrial complex, and big capital. Each night they meet and discuss what decisions to make--and each morning Clinton finds his instructions on his desk. Serbia is the only state in the world that they don't rule.'"

This is not "the banality of evil"--this is the freakishness of evil. And it means that any hopes the ruling couple will wake up one morning to take responsibility for the disaster wrought by their latest misadventure in Kosovo and step down are misplaced. A more likely end to their rule will be their bodies in a puddle of blood.

Mirjana markovic was born in a forest to a 24-year-old partisan fighter named Vera Miletic. A student of French and literature, Miletic was known by her nom de guerre, Mira. She gave Mirjana to peasants for safekeeping when the baby was one day old. It was 1942, and the partisans were under siege, fighting the Germans and the Italians and nationalist Serbs and pro-Nazi Croats. When Mirjana was eight months old, the Gestapo captured her mother, who was later killed under circumstances that remain a mystery. In Communist lore, however, Miletic was despised as a traitor because she was said to have given up the names of her comrades under interrogation and torture.

Nonetheless, in Mirjana's view, her mother was a heroic idealist who fought for her beliefs to the bitter end. Miletic's tragic death and the uncertainty surrounding it appear to have made Mirjana only more certain in her love for communism. "Negative personal experiences are not reason enough to question an ideology as a whole," she said in a 1990 interview that was later published in her book Answer. She called herself Mira--her mother's wartime name. And, after seeing a photograph of her mother with a rose in her hair, she took to wearing one as well, until that flower became a target of derision in Serbia.

Mira's aunt, who died of tuberculosis, was Tito's secretary and lover. And Mira's father, Moma Markovic, was another partisan hero. He survived the war, married another partisan, had four more children, and went on to reach the uppermost echelons of power in Communist Yugoslavia.

Mira's father did not formally recognize her as his daughter until she was a teenager. So Mira grew up apart from him, raised by her grandparents in the provincial town of Pozarevac, south of Belgrade. She joined her father's family only for vacations on the island of Brioni, a favorite of Tito's Communist elite. Even at an early age, Mira demonstrated a penchant for mischief-making. According to a close friend, Mira once confessed that, as a ten-year-old, she used to search for condoms in the rooms of vacationing party officials--whether they were with their wives or mistresses--and then puncture them with a needle.

By her own admission, Mira has always preferred the company of men. "Since I finished grammar school, with a few negligible exceptions, I haven't had any female friends," she said in the same 1990 interview. And she did not take rejection by men lightly. "The only men who have been intolerant to me were the ones with inferiority complexes or the ones with obvious hormonal abnormalities," she said. As for women, they were at best tolerated and at worst despised. According to one of the students she taught at Belgrade University years later, Mira routinely gave women in her classes lower grades. "Even when I had tutored one guy, he got a better grade on the oral exam," laughed the student. And, she adds, "we were all told to cut our nails, otherwise she'd be jealous." Indeed, with her doughy face punctured by black eyes and framed by jet-black bangs, Mira has always had the look of a sort of frumpy, aging school girl.

But, towards the end of high school, when she was about 16, Mira was finally able to take her powerful father's last name, and, in the small town of Pozarevac, that made her attractive. "She was the only person in Pozarevac who had any sort of revolutionary background," recalls a former classmate. " Perhaps that was the reason for her sense of being something special." She soon acquired a new set of friends, including a stocky 17-year-old named Slobodan Milosevic, who was bad at sports.

Sloba, as he is known in Serbia, seemed particularly intrigued by Mira's family history. His mother, Stanislava, was a devout Communist activist who strove to instill in her sons an unswerving faith in the party. Then along came Mira, whose father was among the party's highest officials. "That was probably the reason why Sloba began spending time with her," says the former classmate. Even today, says another acquaintance, "Mira still fascinates Sloba with her pedigree, her family. He is a no-name. It's as if she adopted him, found him in an orphanage."

As for Mira, her pride in her background, says the former classmate, "was mixed with terrible frustration because, for years, Mira's father refused to acknowledge her." It is possible that it was a yearning for more complete acceptance that fueled her political ambitions--which were grandiose even then. Certainly in the young Milosevic she saw her vehicle. In a book about the Milosevics, Slavoljus Djukic, a Serbian author, describes how Mira once pointed to a portrait of Tito, whose picture then adorned every public building, and remarked to a cousin that "Sloba's picture will one day hang like Tito's." Whatever the reasons for their mutual attraction, the two high school sweethearts were clearly smitten with each other. They would walk hand in hand through the streets of Pozarevac and were nicknamed "Romeo and Juliet II."

Soon after the couple's graduation, when Milosevic was 21, his family was rocked by the suicide of his father, Svetozar. A teacher of Russian and literature in his native Montenegro, he shot himself in the head upon learning that a student of his had committed suicide after receiving a bad grade. It was one of a series of suicides in the family. When Slobodan was a boy, his favorite uncle also shot himself. And, in 1994, after an altercation with Mira, Milosevic's mother hung herself. Stanislava had traveled to her son's Belgrade apartment to take care of her grandchildren, but, when she arrived late, Mira slammed the door in her face. Hours later, Stanislava was found dead. Sloba was said to have told a friend who helped cut down the body, "My mother never forgave me for Mira."

Notwithstanding these horrors, however, Sloba and Mira's post-high-school years were fruitful. Milosevic got his degree in law and became best friends with a bright, ambitious fellow student named Ivan Stambolic. Like Mira, Stambolic came from a powerful political family, and he gave his friend a huge boost up the party ranks. Milosevic's first posting was in a manufacturing company. Then there was a gas company. Then, still riding on Stambolic's coattails, he was made head of Beobanka, Yugoslavia's largest bank.

During this period, Milosevic took many trips to the United States and exhibited such an interest in the American system that many of his acquaintances at home concluded that he was a Westernizer. "In their bedroom, on the night table, in 1986, stood a photograph of Slobodan Milosevic together with Nelson Rockefeller. When I saw that, I believed that Milosevic was what we needed, a man who would renew Yugoslavia," says a former friend. " I believed that Milosevic would fight for pluralism, a multiparty system, a market economy." Years later, soon after Milosevic had taken control of Serbia, he would spin his tales of those New York visits to great effect. Speaking in accented but idiomatic English, he managed to convince a number of Westerners, including some U.S. diplomats, that he was a modernizing liberal--a Gorbachev of Serbia.

Had those diplomats looked at the career Milosevic's wife was pursuing during those years, they might have been disabused of that notion. After high school, Markovic went on to get a Ph.D. in sociology at the state university in Nis. One of her cronies was a department head, and "anybody could get a doctorate there," explains Radovan Colevic, an associate of Markovic's at the University of Belgrade. He dares to talk about Markovic now only because he is living in Montenegro. According to Colevic, Mira didn't cite any foreign sources--English, French, or German--in her dissertation. She didn't spend time on anything but "political literature written by servile party types," he says. And, laughing, he wonders whether Markovic, the dedicated Communist, had even read Marx at all, "except for perhaps the abridged version."

Dr. Mira Markovic, as she has insisted on being called ever since, then landed a job as professor of sociology at the University of Belgrade. There, she set out to lay the groundwork for her husband's eventual power grab. Yugoslavia's Communist party was divided into cells, and Belgrade University's Party organization was a particularly important one, serving as a home base from which key party ideologues would often move into political jobs. With her husband by now prominent in the party, Markovic quickly moved to dominate the organization. "Her group was unscrupulous in its efforts to take power and unscrupulous in the way they settled scores with people," recalls Colevic, who was also a member of the organization. They were not yet nationalists, he says, "but Communist fundamentalists, fighting in Tito's name." Of course, even more important than their loyalty to communism was their loyalty to Markovic.

By the mid-'80s, Markovic and her husband had their allies in positions of power throughout the party. And, in 1986, thanks to the continued support of his patron Stambolic--who was president of Serbia by then--Milosevic went from head of the Belgrade city party to chief of Serbia's Communist Party. All Stambolic had ever demanded of Milosevic was loyalty. And, all along, Milosevic had never displayed anything but that. By the spring of 1987, however, Milosevic and Markovic were ready to strike out for the summit of Serbia's political mountain.

For all their early emphasis on orthodox communism, they would use nationalism to make the ascent. On April 24, Stambolic sent Milosevic to calm down a group of Serbs from Kosovo who had been complaining about being mistreated by that region's Albanian majority. Milosevic was supposed to tell them everything would be fine. Instead, he took up their cause. In a stage- managed setting, he promised the Serbs in Kosovo that the Albanian police would never again be allowed to "beat" them. He arranged for these protective words to be blasted all over Belgrade television--run by a close friend of Mira's. From that moment, the media turned Milosevic into a national hero. And Milosevic whipped Serbia into a nationalist frenzy. The notion of Milosevic as a fervent champion of Serbs is, of course, patently ridiculous. Neither Milosevic nor his wife ever even visited wounded soldiers during the ensuing wars in the former Yugoslavia. Still, nationalist grievances had been suppressed since the Communists' victory in World War II. Now, nationalist Serbs rallied around Milosevic.

Mira's role behind the scenes was as crucial as Milosevic's performance. In an interview I conducted with her four years ago for a book and documentary on Yugoslavia's breakup, she described how " w e discussed whether he should speak and what he should say. I thought he should speak constructively and support the Serbs."

In the years that followed, Markovic cemented her backstage grip, planning key moves. Unfortunately for war crimes investigators, she does not leave fingerprints. Still, her close involvement seems indisputable. Milosevic phones Mira about every half-hour, said a man I'll call Bojan, who was once a member of the couple's innermost circle. She has written many of her husband's speeches. The short ones were always hers, Bojan said; no longer than seven minutes was her rule. For years, she has written a column in a popular Belgrade magazine; her column was nicknamed "The Horoscope" because it heralded twists and turns in Milosevic's policy-making and was a reliable forecast of the political fortunes of Serbia's elite. For instance, a year before Milosevic abandoned his military support for his Bosnian Serb proteges, Markovic wrote about her aversion to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and declared that the Bosnian war "is unclear in the political sense, unnecessary in the social sense, of no value in the military sense and immoral in the ethical sense." (The fact that it was her husband who had cooked up the war in the first place was left unmentioned.)

In 1993, markovic decided to form her own political party. Milosevic, who saw the "his and hers" parties as a perfect way to solidify the couple's hold on Serbia, wholeheartedly backed her. Any Communists not fully convinced by the new populistnationalist focus Milosevic had introduced into his Serbian Socialist Party could be scooped up by Markovic's new party, the nominally hard-line Communist Yugoslav United Left (JUL).

Heading JUL also enabled Markovic to maintain her self-image as a committed Communist. Her acquaintances say she always wanted to be the Lenin--or perhaps the Krupskaya--of the twenty-first century. "Ideology has never been for my husband what it has been for me," she said in a 1993 interview published in Answer. "He would never say 'I shall die for socialism' or 'I shall die for internationalism'-- statements to which I am inclined." She believes that she has found the key to development--not only for Yugoslavia but for the whole world. "She has dreamed up some sort of new socialism" that purportedly takes the best from socialism and capitalism, says a former member of her party, retired general Stevan Mirkovic.

But perhaps the most important ideology animating JUL is the ideology of self-interest. This is entirely by design. In 1993, Mira gathered five of her closest friends to help her shape her party. She looked around the room and asked, "What organization has lasted longer than any other? What organization is the most efficient?" "The Mafia," someone answered, noting that the absolute loyalty of its members is ensured through financial benefits and protection, as well as the certainty that betrayal is paid for with one's life. "I like that," Mira said. "We are going to use these principles for our organization."

Mira then co-opted a rabble of war profiteers, smugglers, and criminals into her party. They were the only people in Serbia who had any money, and, through their association with JUL, they became even richer. Among those who took advantage of the opportunities for plunder was the Milosevics' son, Marko.

At first glance, Marko Milosevic--whose close-cropped hair is sometimes bleached peroxide blond because he wants to look like Jacques Villeneuve, the automobile racer--did not seem destined for success. He never finished high school, though he claims to have completed it by correspondence course. Instead, he left Belgrade for his parents' hometown of Pozarevac to drive race cars. By his own admission, at the age of 22 he had totaled 19 cars. " Dad got angry at the first fifteen, but after that he stopped paying attention," Marko once told a local radio station.

Marko soon recognized the potential for using his parents' political power to extort wealth. On one occasion, he asked one of Milosevic's closest friends: "Where's my hundred thousand deutsche marks you promised?" Mira stood by and listened. He wasn't kidding. The man went pale, and the next day Marko had his money. Marko soon decided to enter the lucrative duty-free business, which, in Yugoslavia under sanctions, is a euphemism for smuggling. He set his eye on the duty-free shop on Serbia's frontier with Macedonia and informed the owner that he wanted to buy it. The owner said he wasn't interested in selling. The next day a bulldozer drove up and flattened the store. Flanked by Serbia's head of customs, Mihalj Kertes--a faithful Milosevic crony--Marko then returned, saying, "I've come to negotiate." He paused and asked: "Do you have two or three children?" Marko got the shop. He also ran a discotheque in Pozarevac called Madona that is proclaimed the biggest disco in the Balkans. And he has just built the recreational Bambipark, dubbed Serbia's first Disneyland--complete with a golf course, another first for Serbia. To the shock of locals, workers began construction while the NATO bombing was under way.

Mira soon set about making money as well. It is unclear how much she amassed, but she was certainly energetic about it. "She does not take no for an answer," says Bojan. "When she gets an idea--a fixation--she has to act on it." Her methods were simple. The Milosevic family and their coterie controlled the routes in and out of the country, the cash flow from banks, and every other aspect of business life. Mira would use this power to ensure that only companies linked to her or to her associates could transport goods across the border, obtain bank loans, etc. Former insiders described, for example, how she would call Kertes with instructions--"Nine trucks from such- and-such a company have to cross the border today"--and Kertes would arrange it. As a result, the companies controlled by Mira and her friends reaped windfall profits. At the beginning, Mira was so excited by their wealth that friends watched as she personally counted out the money--"her fat fingers counting it bill by bill," says one witness to the scene.

Notwithstanding the wealth they amassed in those sanctions-busting days, those in the Milosevics' inner circle have paid a heavy price. Just as Milosevic allowed them to get rich, so can he also ruin them. And anyone perceived to demonstrate anything less than total loyalty faces threats, jail, or possibly worse--if the violent deaths of many of the Milosevics' closest friends are any guide. One was gunned down in an underground garage; a second, in a pizzeria; a third, in a parking lot. In none of these cases were the murderers ever found. Over the years, the number of cronies in the first couple's inner circle has dwindled to the point where, today, it is practically limited to the members of their nuclear family.

Mira says her "best friend" is her 33-year-old daughter, Marija. Like her brother Marko, Marija did not excel as a student. She switched schools several times and finally completed a correspondence course at a tourism high school. But, also like her brother, Marija made the most of her family's power--as did her friends. According to a friend of a young man named Viktor, who dated Marija, Viktor received a Jaguar from a would-be minister for sport. As for Marija, after a brief stint in Tokyo as a diplomat's wife, she took up journalism. Needless to say, she immediately landed a plum job at Illustrovana Politika, a People-style Serbian magazine.

Nevertheless, Marija remains a bit wild. Her parents tried to keep secret the fact that she had recently fired a pistol--for fun--at the door of a Belgrade cafe. But when the press came calling, Marija couldn't resist boasting about it. "I have carried a gun for years. It looks good on me," she said. And, she added, "I have not thought about marriage and children. To carry a baby in one arm and a pistol in the other--that would be complicated." Her attitude belies the total absence of commitment to anything other than short-term well-being that is at the core of the Milosevic family's values. Even Serbia, the land on which her family has grown so fat, has no hold on her heart. "I don't like anything here," she said in 1996. "Not this country, these people, so crazy, so angry, who fight in the streets, throw bombs into cafes."

Apart from their children, Milosevic and Markovic have eyes only for each other. By all accounts, their bond remains as strong as always. According to Bojan, they kiss passionately in public each time one of them leaves for a trip. When Mira's most recent book came out, Milosevic raised a glass in her honor, saying, "Kitten, here's to your book and that you'll always love me." He once told Richard Holbrooke, then U.S. special envoy to the Balkans, "They say behind every great man is a mistress. Well, I guess that means I will never be a great leader." In short, says Bojan, "Sloba and Mira constitute one being."

Today, Milosevic and Markovic are more out of touch than ever. Milosevic, says an acquaintance, still gets nearly all his information from the secret police, or Sluzba Drzavne Bezbednosti (SDB). A remnant of the cold war, it infiltrates every institution in the country and is said to tap tens of thousands of phones. But Milosevic has purged the SDB, leaving only those who tell him what he wants to hear.

Milosevic's only other real source of information is Mira--who picks up rumors and gossip from friends, gleans what she can from the newspapers, throws in some cosmic theorizing, then writes it all up in her own briefings. Milosevic occasionally uses these to demonstrate to the SDB that he doesn't trust them entirely and does not depend exclusively on them for information.

In this fashion, the Milosevics have cobbled together a worldview that has decidedly little to do with reality. Mira believes from the bottom of her being that, just as Tito stood alone against Stalin in 1948, Serbia is alone in its brave stand against American domination. Her husband agrees. During the last visit by U.S. officials before the bombing, Milosevic looked at Holbrooke and said: "If you say that today is Sunday and not Wednesday, there is nothing we can do about it. You are the superpower."

According to this vision, Sloba and Mira are not history's aggressors but its victims. Indeed, when I met Mira for the interview back in 1996, I was struck by the mousiness of her demeanor. Rather than the dragon lady who had plotted Milosevic's career from brutal conflict to brutal conflict, I found myself in the presence of a stout matron--her black stockings puckered around her thick ankles, her black patent-leather pumps adorned with pink bows and slightly scuffed. I extended my hand and, for a nanosecond, found myself grasping a fingertip. I looked into her eyes. They seemed to vibrate slightly- -like a scared animal's. Her voice was high-pitched, and she lisped. Asked about her husband's June 1989 speech in Kosovo--the seminal moment of her and her husband's bid for power--she emphasized how "afraid" she'd been for his life.

In other interviews, Mira has feigned a similar innocence. Ever certain of her attractiveness to men, she played the helpless coquette to CBS News' Dan Rather in an interview during the bombing of Belgrade. Looking up flirtatiously from underneath her bangs, she told Rather that she had agreed to talk to him "because you were so kind" and she "trusted" him. Of the Albanians, she said: " Serbs are not killing them, they are not expelling them. This is as if you told me today is Wednesday, but today is Saturday." Asked what she thought about comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler, she answered: "I would react in the same way as if you told me now is the month of January and that we have snow outside. As you can see, today is the first of May and lilacs are blooming... My husband does not hate any people. He does not use violence."

Milosevic was similarly coy when I interviewed him eight months after my interview with Markovic. As we were speaking, Bosnian Serb soldiers were in the process of slaughtering the Muslim men of Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia. I asked him what was going on there. "A moment came when you could no longer expect any kind of rational control. I don't know exactly what happened there," he said.

It is tempting to conclude that such denials are all part of an elaborate act. But it's just as possible that the Milosevics believe their lies. And this has far more disturbing implications for the prospect of a peaceful shifting of power in Serbia.

The most recent time the regime faced a challenge was in winter 1996-97. Zoran Djindjic, an opposition leader, says he spoke with Milosevic then. "I said, 'You really have problems; there are one hundred thousand people on the street demonstrating against you.' He looked at me and said, 'You must be watching too much CNN. There aren't.'"

Today, Milosevic faces even more serious problems. He has run his economy into the ground. Serbia is still under sanctions. And the major opposition parties, along with the Serbian Orthodox Church, are calling for him to step down. One wonders if he is once again making telephone calls, asking old friends to drop by. Because he is bored.

Laura Silber is the coauthor of Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation. She is currently working with Chuck Sudetic on a biography of Slobodan Milosevic.

 
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By Laura Silber