Milošević’s rise to power deserves careful scrutiny, not only because it has long served as the dominant narrative of these historical events, but because it reflects the broader power-structure of socialist states in general. Despite Milošević’s prominence in European history, his rise to power is widely contested and shrouded in mystery. Traditional historians argue that Milošević rose to power due to the broad appeal of his centrist political program. Revisionist historians have challenged this view. They believe it was Milošević s populist charisma and nationalist appeal that enabled him to both gain and maintain power. In the upcoming paper, I am going to analyze how Milošević gained and maintained control over Serbia. Firstly, I am going examine Milošević’s rise to power. Discussing the context of post-Tito Yugoslavia, the catalyst of Kosovo and the charisma of Milošević. I am then going to discuss how Milošević maintained control over Serbia. Firstly, I will analyze how Milošević manipulated the media in order to facilitate his fear and victimhood rhetoric. I will then discuss Milošević’s rejection of the Rambouillet Formula; an event which epitomizes his overall strategy for maintaining power. Though I will be tackling Milošević’s rise and maintenance of power separately. The general trends of opportunism and ethnic nationalism remain prevalent throughout both sections.
Throughout the 1970s, Yugoslavia had embarked on a ‘borrowing binge.’ This program allowed Yugoslavia’s economy to grow at an annual rate of on average 5.1% per annum. However, by 1982, Yugoslavia’s debt had reached 20 billion dollars. ‘The Friends of Yugoslavia’, an informal group of lenders, consolidated Yugoslavia’s debt and put together a package of rescue loans by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. This allowed Yugoslavia to remain a member of the Western financial community, however a strict program of economic retrenchment and loan repayments followed. This meant that Yugoslavia had to ignore much needed domestic investment. By 1985, unemployment in the social sector had risen to 16.3%, earnings had dropped by 25%, annual inflation was at 2500% and some amenities had to be rationed. The political system in Yugoslavia was at a standstill, the economy was in freefall and the political elite were deemed incapable. Communism and nationalism are so paradoxically related, that Nationalism seemed the obvious answer for Yugoslavia. For this political transition to occur, there must be key actors opportunistically exploiting the political vacuum—Milošević added the fuel of nationalism to the fire of social, economic and political dissatisfaction.
The mythology surrounding Kosovo originated in 1389, when Serb Prince Lazar was defeated by the Ottoman Turks at Kosovo-Polje. This event had a huge effect on the Serbian national consciousness. Like many historical tragedies, it had a greater impact on the national conscience than a historical victory would have. Kosovo was Serbia’s Jerusalem and was the most fundamental feature of its national identity. In 1981, a rebellion of ethnic-Albanians, who formed the majority of the Kosovan population, broke out in Pristina. The rebellion was quashed; however the Serbians were dissatisfied at the irredentist attitude of the Albanians. Furthermore, they realized they could not enforce sovereign decisions due to the opposition from other autonomous provinces. Milošević, in true ethnic entrepreneurial spirit, realized he could exploit the Serb national conscience. Images of a beleaguered peasants under attack from an ancient threat were made for a demagogue. Serbia was about to get one.
Tito’s Yugoslavia relied upon the suppression of Nationalism and active participation of the masses in politics. Milošević disregarded these premises, thus establishing himself as a charismatic populist. In April 1987, Milošević was sent to the Serb province of Kosovo-Polje, where the historic Battle of Kosovo took place. Milošević faced an infuriated Serb crowd. Milošević exclaimed, ‘No one should dare to beat you again.’ Although scholars have possibly exaggerated the nationalist undertones of this statement, it still marks a decisive moment in Milošević’s rise to power. The message was played copiously on Serb television, becoming a mantra in the Serb provinces of both Croatia and Kosovo. April 24th was the first time Milošević labelled ethnicity as a security issue. By championing ethnic securitization, Milošević was able to maneuver himself between the Serb Communist party and the nationalist sentiments of the Serb people. Kosovo-Polje showed Milošević the supremacy of evocative charisma over the technocratic approach of his political rival Stambolic. At a time where the Federal Government were trying to introduce free market reforms to kickstart the economy, Milošević emerged as the charismatic defender of socialist state-economic intervention.
In September 1987, Milošević turned his attention to Stambolic and Pavlovic. Both men suggested that the Kosovo problem should be solved peacefully. Milošević attacked this premise, exclaiming that those who called for a moderate approach towards Kosovo were betraying Serbdom. Four months later, Milošević had control of the Serbian presidency. He could now turn his attentions toward the Serbian people. His tactics to achieve this end, both atypical of a charismatic leader, were orchestration of huge protest rallies and the manipulation of the media. The anti-bureaucratic revolution illustrates how Milošević used populist politics to gain power. One specific example is the protest rally in Vojvodina. On October 5th, Milošević led 15,000 protesting Serbs towards the Vojvodina parliament. Protestors shouted; ‘down with armchair government,’ whilst throwing stones and yoghurt. He stated: ‘We shall win despite the fact that Serbia’s enemies outside the country are plotting against it, along with those inside the country.’ By March 1989, Milošević had all but eliminated Kosovan autonomy through a series of constitutional amendments. His ability to maneuver the political system allowed him to substantiate his populist rhetoric.
By 1990, Milošević had all but eradicated Serbia’s independent press. Controlling the media allowed Milošević to reinvigorate ethical tensions during times of public skepticism. Milošević’s media portrayed Albanians as terrorists, Croatians as Ustasha’s, and Bosnians as vengeful Muslim extremists. The well documented rise of Franjo Tudjman incited fear amongst Serbs living in Croatia. The Serbian press wasted no time in associating Tudjman with the fascist Ustasha movement. Fear and paranoia evolved in open rebellion across Krajina in 1990. Krajina Serbs rebelled and eventually declared the province autonomous from Croatia. When Croat forces moved to retake control, the Serbian Media reported it as an attack on the Serbian Nation. Serb politician Radovan Karadzic reminded the Serbs of the atrocities the Croats instigated in World War Two. Fabrication was common for Serbia’s media. To incite feelings of victimhood, the Serbian Media reported that 700,000 Serbs were exterminated in Jasenovac concentration camp, however the number is closer to 45,000. Media fabrication is exemplified in the Pakrac genocide case and the Vukovar baby massacre case.
Milošević decided he would rather fight NATO than agree to the Rambouillet Formula for Kosovo. NATO's combined GDP was 900 times that of Yugoslavia, their defense budget was 300 times larger, and they had a combined population that was 70 times larger. However, accepting the Rambouillet Formula would have been a step towards Kosovan independence. There are a number of reasons why Milošević needed Serbian supremacy in Kosovo in order to maintain power.
Serbs had strong cultural attachments to Kosovo. It was ‘the cradle of Serbia’s identity and the mainspring of its ancient culture.’ Furthermore, Milošević’s own political character corresponded with the Serb supremacy in Kosovo. He owed his rise to power to his exploitation of Serbian nationalist sentiment and the promotion of Serbian hegemony in Kosovo. He accomplished this in 1989 when he abolished the broad autonomy Kosovo had enjoyed under the 1974 constitution. From 1990 onwards, Kosovo had provided Milošević’s Socialist Party with sufficient additional seats in the Serbian parliament to give it a parliamentary majority. Had the Kosovo Albanians not boycotted the 1997 election, the Socialists would have held less seats than Vojisläv Seselj’s Radical Party. Finally, Milošević continually relied on exploiting the Kosovo issue to mobilize public support and distract people from the serious problems facing Serbia. His authoritarian leadership relied heavily on the police, media and patronage. If he lost public support his absolute power seemed would dissipate.
Given the inauspicious military situation, Milošević had to find ways to reduce NATO’s willingness to fight. Milošević used the strategy of conventional deterrence. Milošević’s strategy worked, and NATO confined its war to the air. Through manipulating NATO into an air war, Milošević was exploiting the dissension amongst NATO allies seen in the previous Yugoslav wars. NATO members were wary of possible collateral damage to civilians. This had been proven by the Bosnian Civil War in 1995, whereby bombing was confined solely to Bosnia.
Milošević could also rely on Russia for diplomatic support. Russia empathized with the Serb cause both for historical reasons and resentment towards NATO. Russia’s support for Serbia was demonstrated in 1994 when they when they helped the Serb cause in the ‘Contact Group.’ This helped negotiate an end to the Civil War in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milošević also used refugees as a weapon. NATO feared a ground war could lead to a wave of Balkan refugees descending on Europe. Furthermore, Milošević was able to use Kosovo Albanian refugees to influence Macedonia. An influx of Albanians to Macedonia would have inflamed political divisions in the region. Macedonia was integral as it was the most viable location for NATO to land their troops.
Milošević’ rapidly rose and maintained power through exploiting ethnic tensions and championing nationalist tendencies during a time of economic and political instability. He exploited historical rivalries, manipulated political allies and told the politically disenfranchised people exactly what they wanted to her. The institutions or individuals that disputed his rule, were delegitimized by his media and subsequently purged. Alarming, if you replace the word Milošević with Donald Trump, this conclusion makes the same amount of sense.