Waiting for Slobo

Has Milosevic really been arrested? While The Hague waits to try him, a ragged troop of loyalists still stands behind the fallen dictator.

Published March 31, 2001 9:00AM (EST)

On Friday, reports in the Serbian media announced that Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic had finally been arrested. As of Friday evening, no official confirmation had been made, and aides denied the news, saying Milosevic was still safely holed up in his villa, where he has lived in seclusion since the fall of his government last October.

While rumors and conflicting reports continue to circulate, everyone is still waiting for Slobodan Milosevic. The Hague is waiting to put him on trial for war crimes, and Serbs are waiting for his arrest to be confirmed -- Yugoslavia's immediate future hinges on it.

If the news is true, why has it taken so long to arrest Milosevic?

Democratic reformers imagined a different scenario when Milosevic was toppled from power. The world warmly embraced President Vojislav Kostunica and Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the mastermind behind the October revolution. But things quickly began to founder. Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer, insisted that democratic reformers take power legally, which meant gradually, and that meant nothing meaningful could be done before Serbian elections were held at the end of December.

That gave Milosevic cronies nearly three months to cover their tracks, a task they set to immediately. Meanwhile, Montenegro signaled it would push ahead with plans to leave the Yugoslav federation despite the democratic turnaround in Belgrade. At the same time, Albanian guerillas in southern Serbia began a new campaign that recently spread to Macedonia and now threatens to destabilize the entire region.

All the while, Yugoslavia's relationship with the Hague Tribunal has been defined by a personal feud waged between Kostunica and Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte. After a rocky meeting, he called her "ambitious," while Del Ponte called him a "man of the past" and openly said she didn't like him.

The U.S. has demanded that Yugoslavia cooperate with the Hague or lose American financial aid and support from world financial institutions. Back in November, Congress gave Yugoslavia a March 31 deadline to arrest Milosevic. The U.S. has agreed to allow him to be tried in Belgrade on charges unrelated to war crimes, with the promise of his eventual extradition to the Hague.

Serb authorities have had difficulty building a case against Milosevic, apart from a shady real estate deal. It's no wonder: Milosevic's pen rarely touched a piece of paper, and his entire regime seemed to function by word of mouth. Many high-ranking functionaries didn't even have fax machines or computers in their offices.

"Before the revolution, the West had a much different attitude towards us and nobody mentioned deadlines and ultimatums," said a Serbian minister who asked for anonymity. "I think there's been a general lack of understanding as to what we were faced with in Belgrade."

Like many Yugoslav leaders, Djindjic has stressed the need for the country to police its own criminals. "Our society must reconstruct what has happened over the past 10 years through the legal process. We deserve a chance to clean up our past," he said.

Federal Police Minister Zoran Zivkovic has likened the pursuit of the dictator to the hunt for gangster Al Capone. "Capone walked around America for years while everyone knew who he was. Hopefully we won't need that long," he said.

Milosevic is practically my neighbor. I live less than a 10-minute walk from his current residence on mansion-lined Uzicka Street in the exclusive Belgrade suburb of Dedinje. He owns two properties in the neighborhood, but presently lives in a modest state-owned home whose red-tile roof is visible above a towering cement wall. Elite army units are reportedly stationed behind the wall, but out front Milosevic's only protection is a friendly police officer and the "people's guard."

As news has come down in recent weeks of the arrests of former Milosevic officials, a few dozen loyalists have waited patiently outside his house to offer moral support and hopefully catch a glimpse of their beloved "Slobo," whom they refer to as the "greatest leader" in their nation's history. The sense of betrayal and confusion among them is palpable. What kind of world is this where Slobo could be king one year, a criminal the next?

"Not even the Soviet Union had the courage to fight the entire NATO Pact. Slobo will be recorded as the greatest leader in Serbia's history," said a retired police officer. Branko Ruzic, the president of Socialist Youth, said, "All this business of arrest is simply carrying out orders from the West. They want to be done with Slobo to justify themselves and their criminal bombing of Yugoslavia."

The aging posse in front of Milosevic's home is a daily reminder of just how little support the fallen leader has. The people's guard is made up mostly of working class retirees who, taken together, don't have one set of healthy teeth among them. The guard was formed a few weeks ago in response to the first premature statement from Prime Minister Djindjic that Milosevic's arrest was imminent.

Droves of reporters landed at Belgrade's airport. But the storm passed and journalists scampered back onto their planes and left. The common wisdom among Belgrade citizens has been that CNN's Christine Amanpour is the oracle who will signal that the hour of Milosevic's arrest is truly at hand. Serbs ascribe to Amanpour nearly supernatural and evil powers due to her marriage to former White House spokesman James Rubin. Both faces are associated with NATO's Yugoslavian bombing campaign. "I've heard she is coming soon," said Vesna, a 60-something member of the people's guard, "but I don't know what the bitch wants in Belgrade."

Slobo has emerged three times from behind the gate to chat with supporters and I've missed him each time. One Sunday I missed him by a painful 15 minutes. The commotion was immediately visible as I approached the few dozen supporters. "What's going on?" I asked the first familiar face. A man clutched his head in astonishment, "Oy, you didn't see him? Where were you? Why weren't you here? He just came out! He was here among us!"

Slobo had emerged, holding his grandson Marko, with his daughter-in-law Milica at his side. He was wearing a white oxford shirt with "sweet little blue stripes," as one woman described it, no tie, and a blazer. "I touched him! I touched his face," said another woman, her hands still trembling with emotion.

"Did he say anything?" I asked everyone. Several people recalled that, yes, he had said something, but nobody could remember what. Everyone was either too stunned or weeping.

I finally found a young man who hadn't completely lost his composure. "It seemed that he had intended to speak, but was immediately swarmed by supporters. The women were crying and kissing him. What could he say?" said the man. Finally, someone recalled one simple phrase: "Things will be better."

Not likely.

But this story is far from over. A denouement worthy of the Milosevic family's abuse of power is still lacking. The Ceaucescus finished lying in the mud riddled with bullets, while the son Niku drank himself to death.

Standing in front of his house with a dozen or so loyalists, I have pictured Slobo sitting in an armchair sipping a whiskey, his drink of choice, while he stares at a wall, wondering where it all went wrong. He turns 60 this year and all he has to look forward to is a life behind bars.

He has been living out his last days of freedom in the company of his wife Mira Markovic, his 2-year-old grandson Marko, and his daughter-in-law Milica, the bombshell girlfriend of Milosevic's son Marko. Marko fled the country after the October uprising and is reportedly tramping around the former Soviet Union where he is protected by a Russian mafia leader.

In interviews, the Milosevic family refuses to take the slightest responsibility for the country's utter devastation, which included four regional wars, plundered savings accounts, unsolved political killings, the criminalization of society and the highest inflation rate recorded in history. "Our family has been the subject of a pogrom in which Stalinistic and fascistic methods have been perfected," Markovic recently told the Belgrade weekly Vreme. "Our family has been exposed to media terror since 1990. For a decade there have been circles that have threatened to kidnap, poison, arrest and kill [Milosevic]," said Markovic.

Markovic has always been the ideologue behind the Milosevic operation, and held a cult-like influence over her followers. "As hard as it is to believe, people are still scared of her," said a source in the democratic coalition who maintains contacts with former Milosevic cronies. This could partially explain why Milosevic cronies who have already been arrested, including former security chief Rade Markovic, have refused to implicate the former first couple.

Many believe Milosevic would commit suicide before spending the rest of his life in jail, a theory based on his family history of suicides. As rumors continue to circulate, we will wait to find out if he has evaded capture once again.

By Alex Todorovic

Alex Todorovic is a Belgrade writer.

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