Mira Marković: Serbia's Red Witch

The wife of the Serbian politician Slobodan Milošević, but many Serbians would account her equally culpable for the dictatorship of the 1990s. The influence she could supposedly exert over her husband earned her comparisons to Elena Ceausescu or, if imaginative Western journalists were listening, Lady Macbeth. Add her proud communism to the mixture, and you've got yourself Serbia's very own Red Witch.

On The Banks Of The Morava

Mira was born in 1942, during World War II. Her mother and father were both members of the Partisans, Josip Broz Tito's resistance movement, and by Mira's own account, she was born somewhere on the banks of the Morava river during a Partisan operation. Her father, Momir Marković, was an avowed Partisan hero, but married again and rarely saw Mira while she was growing up.

Instead, Mira idolised her mother Vera Miletić, who had been executed in autumn 1944, the time of the liberation of Belgrade. According to Mira, she was shot by the Gestapo before the liberation; others allege that she gave away details of the Partisan underground to her German captors, and may have been killed by the Partisans themselves.

Mira first heard this from a history teacher at the age of ten, and thereafter attempted to rehabilitate her mother's memory; she wrote a book in her defence, and for a time even took to wearing a rose in her hair as her mother had done. Mira, in fact, is a short form of her birth name Mirjana, but also Vera Miletić's nom de guerre.

Mira and Milošević attended the same school in the city of Požarevac, supposedly meeting each other when Mira's library ticket had run out and she wanted to borrow a copy of the tragedy Antigone. Both were somewhat isolated from their peers, but found fulfilment in the youth section of the Serbian Communist Party, in which Mira made no secret of her political ambitions for her boyfriend. When she came to visit him on his military service in Zadar, she pointed to a picture of Tito in a shop window and declared 'That's where my Slobodan's picture will be one day.'

The couple married in the late 1950s, and had two children, Marko and Marija. Initially, Mira seemed to have the stronger career: she became a sociology professor at Belgrade University, and was elected to the university's party committee, one of the most important Communist organisations in Yugoslavia. Milošević, meanwhile, seemed to have opted for a financial career, but under Tito's version of socialism, even a banking position could be a political appointment.

Marković devoted herself to his advancement instead, and in 1986 he was elected head of the Serbian Politburo, under the patronage of party grandee and university friend Ivan Stambolić.

'No-One Is Allowed To Beat You'

The talismanic Tito died in 1980, and later in the decade a virulent Serbian nationalism began to grow among intellectuals and the mass media. Initially, Milošević consolidated his career by courting the party's traditionalists, but in 1987 he seized on a Serb demonstration at the site of the Battle of Kosovo - the Serbian nationalist symbol par excellence to align himself with the new movement.

When interviewed for a biography of Milošević, Marković took credit for advising him to support the Kosovo Serbs. His improvised slogan, 'No-one is allowed to beat you', would later be seen as the beginning of the Milošević era proper, in which he played on nationalist sentiment to try to rally Serbians around his personal power.

In the late 1980s, Yugoslavian politicians such as Ante Marković - no relation - attempted to reform communism for a post-Berlin Wall environment and introduce a multi-party system in which the Communists might become a social democratic party. Mira was strongly opposed to any such changes, on the grounds that communism in Yugoslavia had been established by the hard-fought Partisan struggle and had too proud a heritage to be dismantled.

She herself was no nationalist, and despised Vojislav Šešelj, a key Milošević ally in the early years of the wars in Yugoslavia, who had founded a paramilitary unit known as the Chetniks. The course of World War II in Yugoslavia had seen another Chetnik movement, strongly associated with Serb nationalism, become as bitter an adversary of the Partisans as the Germans were.

This may account for her antipathy to Šešelj, and to the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić, whom she described as 'that Chetnik' and refused to speak to on the telephone. She repeated the criticisms in her regular column for Duga magazine, where she also attacked Karadžićs deputy Biljana Plavšić as 'a female Mengele'. Aside from Marković, Plavšić was the highest-ranking woman in former Yugoslavia during the war years. Pots and kettles may or may not come to mind.

JUL Is Cool

Milošević severed his links with Šešelj and Karadžić when it suited him to draw the Bosnian war to a close and sign the Dayton Accords in 1995. While Milošević was poring over maps and knocking back the šljivovica in Ohio, Mira was busy reorganising the Politburo, Serbia's political inner circle, with the aid of the part-politician, part-businessman Zoran Todorović. Six top nationalist-inclined officials, loyal to her husband but not herself, were sacked.

Since 1990, when the first multi-party elections had taken place, Mira had headed a minuscule party known as the League of Communists, a revival of Tito's name for what had been the only party. In the wake of her purge of the Politburo, she relaunched it as the Yugoslav United Left, or JUL, issuing lapel badges with the optimistic slogan 'JUL je kul' - 'JUL is cool'.

Financial backing came from the millionaire Bogoljub Karić, who took care to flatter Marković by arranging for a book collecting her Duga columns to be published and keeping her daughter Marija's television station, TV Košava, afloat. Marković fancied her chances as a media mogul too, and owned the channel TV Pink, which had its offices in JUL headquarters and broadcast a wall-to-wall schedule of kitschy turbofolk music.

In 1996, Milošević's own party lost municipal elections in a dozen cities to the Zajedno coalition, organised by opposition leaders Vuk Drašković and Zoran Đinđić. He refused to recognise the victories, and 88 days of protest marches through Belgrade followed, during which Marković told the secret police chief Jovica Stanišić to break the demonstrations up by force. Stanišić refused, and Milošević conceded defeat in February 1997.

A few months later, the Milošević family moved into the most luxurious villa in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje. The building, which had once belonged to Tito, in fact covered the same area as a normal city block, and the site contained Tito's tomb. The move was organised by Mira, whose affection for the Partisan myth had not diminished.

Before taking the house over, she had it stripped of all its contents, antiques and Persian carpets included, in case they had been bugged by the secret service. Where once she had been satirised for her dowdy dress sense, she began to show up in standard-issue Belgrade-gangster Versace, and underwent a course of liposuction.

Slobo's Last Stand

In early 1998, tension increased in Kosovo between the Milošević regime and Kosovar Albanians, who had now organised the KLA guerrilla force, Milošević dropped the moderate politicians who opposed his handling of the crisis and formed a new government consisting of his Socialists, Marković's JUL and the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Šešelj. Marković's reaction to the coalition with her old sparring partner is not recorded.

As the prospect of bombing by NATO became more likely, Milošević had another purge of the security services, placing them under the control of Rade Marković - again, no relation, but a JUL member whose loyalty was to Mira. Alongside the military campaign, NATO convinced the European Union to issue personal sanctions against Milošević, Marković, their family and their leading politicians.

The control that Mira had extended over the secret police came to nothing in October 2000, when Milošević lost the presidential election to Vojislav Koštunica and protests erupted once again. Rade Marković had to tell the couple that many of the regular police and army, including the elite special forces unit known as the Red Berets, had gone over to the opposition; Mira reportedly became hysterical, and had to be given sedatives.

The Red Berets, who had formed an unholy alliance with Serbia's prime minister Zoran Đinđić, were the natural choice to arrest Milošević in spring 2001, when Đinđić won his struggle with Koštunica to extradite the ex-president to the Hague Tribunal.

The couple turned Tito's old villa into a makeshift arsenal for the occasion, laying in two machine guns, 23 pistols, 30 assault rifles and a rocket launcher. Marija alone was to carry three handguns, including one concealed in her bra. Apparently, Mira attempted to steel Slobodan's resolve to the last, urging him to go down fighting rather than suffer the humiliation of being brought before the tribunal.

Mira's assets remained frozen and the 1999 visa ban in place, but she was allowed to pay monthly conjugal visits to her husband in The Netherlands and, according to Marija, managed to visit Moscow in February 2003. She had, from her point of view at least, the good fortune to be in Russia when Serbian police discovered the body of Ivan Stambolić, who had mysteriously disappeared a month before the 2000 elections, and tried to haul her in for questioning.

At the time, Stambolić had been spoken of as a potential candidate to run against Milošević. Serbian authorities in 2003 believed that the murder would have been ordered by Rade Marković, at the insistence of one or other of the presidential couple.

After Đinđić had been assassinated in March 2003, over a thousand gangsters had been rounded up and interrogated; the prime minister was thought to have been killed because of his crackdown on, or perhaps his links with, organised crime. It appeared that rather more skeletons, quite literally so, were beginning to surface in the closet.

Read more:
Adam LeBor, Milosevic
Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia
Robert Thomas, Serbia Under Milosevic

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