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Yugoslavia: Missing Serb Leader Was 'Man Who Invented Milosevic'

  • Don Hill

Ivan Stambolic -- past president of Serbia and the latest former associate of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to disappear -- vowed that he had retired from politics, and his family says he had no enemies. Still. many in Serbia believe that government authorities engineered his mysterious vanishing. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill tells the story.

Prague, 31 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- To a casual observer, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic might seem to be having a run of terrible luck. Over the last decade, a number of Milosevic's former friends and political associates have met with accidents, been gunned down by unknown assailants or simply disappeared.

The latest of these, former Serb president Ivan Stambolic, went out for his regular morning run last Friday -- and has not been heard from since.

On Saturday (Aug 26), three Serbian opposition parties said they were convinced that Milosevic's organization was behind Stambolic's vanishing month before scheduled presidential elections. The New Democracy party said this in a statement: "When darkness starts to swallow up people, [all] of us have reason for concern."

Ivan Stambolic is more than merely a Serbian intellectual and political has-been. In the words of Ljubica Markovic, the director of Serbia's independent news agency BETA, Stambolic was Milosevic's "political father."

In 1987, Josip Broz Tito -- who by the force of his personality had held Yugoslavia's Bosnians, Serbs, Croats and other ethnic groups together as one country for 35 years -- was seven years dead. The Serbian province of Kosovo was restive amid growing confrontations between Kosovar Albanians and its then Serb majority. The Serbian president tapped his protege, a little known bureaucrat named Slobodan Milosevic, to go to Kosovo to calm the situation. That president was Ivan Stambolic.

Milosevic did not bring calm to Kosovo. Instead, he made a fiery nationalistic speech promising the Serbs they never again would be defeated. He said: "Unless you fight for Serbia, your ancestors will be betrayed, your descendants will be shamed. These are your lands, your fields, your gardens, your memories."

With that single speech, Milosevic reawakened the slumbering ogre of Serbian nationalism. BETA Director Markovic said in a telephone interview from Belgrade that under Tito any appeal to such narrow nationalism had been prohibited.

"It was a forbidden topic at that time. No nationalism was ever permitted in Yugoslavia. And Serb nationalism was the first one to arise, to be raised, to be put on the agenda by Mr. Milosevic, and that caused a sort of scandal."

Milosevic became an instant Serb nationalist hero. That was the beginning of his political career. When he returned home in triumph, President Stambolic publicly denounced him for embarking on the dangerous course of appealing to Serb nationalism. That was the beginning of the end of Stambolic' political career.

A year later, a Milosevic faction forced Stambolic from office. Milosevic threw his old boss and sponsor a bone. He appointed Stambolic director of the Yugoslav Bank for International Cooperation.

Markovic remembers that Stambolic took on his new job with grace and skill, making the bank a force for economic good in the country until Milosevic abruptly replaced him with a crony. Still, the BETA director says she remains of mixed mind about Stambolic. In her words:

"I can't say I'm an admirer, but I respect very much what he did after he was kicked out of political life [but] only after that. Because before that, he was a member of the communist establishment, very strong, very decisive. He was leading cleansing campaigns against the Serbian media. He was not very liberally oriented at that time."

When, six years ago, Markovic and a handful of colleagues sought to establish BETA, now Serbia's most influential independent news organization, banker Stambolic -- the former antagonist of a free press -- helped arrange a vital bank loan.

Markovic says she wasn't close to Stambolic, but was told by colleagues who were that he was remorseful over his role in Milosevic's rise. Stambolic's name had appeared in recent public opinion polls as a possible candidate to run against Milosevic in next month's presidential elections. He told friends that at 65 he considered his political life over. It was a time for younger, newer faces, he said.

Even so, Stambolic continued to be outspoken and public in his criticism of Milosevic. He also frequently gave advice to Milosevic's foes in Montenegro, even traveling to the smaller Yugoslav republic on several recent occasions.

BETA broke the story last Friday (Aug 25) about the former president's disappearance. For six days, the Milosevic government and its state-controlled news outlets remained ominously silent about the incident. Markovic agrees with those who believe that Stambolic is the latest victim of Milosevic's forces.

"My personal opinion at the first moment I heard it (the disappearance report) was that the regime is behind it, that they're cooking something up, and that they want to press him and that he will be released in two or three days. Now those hopes are fading away."

Vojislav Kustunica is the presidential candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia and has emerged in the polls as likely to defeat Milosevic in a fair election. He told a press conference Monday (Aug 28), "This is part of a wider, extremely worrying process which speaks about the situation we live in."

The Milosevic regime has closed the coming election to most international observers.