bosnia report
New Series No: 47-48 September - November 2005
The Twilight Years of Serbian Communism
by Slavoljub Ðukic

Draža Marković (1920-2005) and General Nikola Ljubičić (1916-2005), once two of the most powerful Serbian politicians, died this year. Of the leading Serbian Communists who outlived Tito, there remain only Petar Stambolić (1912- ) and Dušan Čkrebić (1927- ). Tihomir Vlaškalić, Dobrivoje Vidić, Miloš Minić and Petar Gračanin died of old age. Ivan Stambolić, on the other hand, was brutally murdered. In this essay Slavoljub Đukić looks at some of the individuals who in their various ways ensured Milošević’s ascent to power in Serbia.


April 1982

A meeting took place at Petar Stambolić’s home on Dedinje in the middle of April 1982. Those present included, apart from the host, Draža Marković, Dobrivoje Vidić, Dušan Čkrebić, Ivan Stambolić and Š piro Galović. The meeting was to decide who would be ‘chosen’ for leading posts in forthcoming elections to the central committee (CK) of the Serbian League of Communists (SKS). The ranking order was always decided beforehand, sometimes several years in advance. The current SKS president Tihomir Vlaškalić was not invited to the meeting. He was a compromise solution after the purge of the Serbian ‘liberals’, not intended to last; but he had nevertheless remained in his post for ten years (1972-82) - longer than any other Serbian party leader. This could be explained by his skill in adjusting to the prevailing political wind. Throughout this time the real power in Serbia lay with Draža Marković and Petar Stambolić. A man who liked his comforts, Vlaškalić preferred dinner-time company to that of the CK. He subsequently slid into a desired obscurity and died, politically forgotten, at the age of 83.

Draža Marković was the main speaker at the meeting. Next to him sat Petar Stambolić, nodding his head. There was no need for Petar to speak, given that for years the two had worked in complete harmony. It was decided that Čkrebić would lead the SKS for the next two years, after which he would be replaced by Ivan Stambolić, who in the meantime would head the Belgrade party branch. P. Stambolić, Marković and Vidić, on the other hand, would take posts in the top federal bodies. The biggest surprise turned out to be the selection of General Ljubičić as Serbia’s president. Everyone had thought that the political career of this retired general and former minister of defence was over, but Marković summoned him back. He and P. Stambolić agreed that the general, widely perceived as a ‘Titoist’ and a Yugoslav, would improve Serbia’s dented image in the federation. Slobodan Milošević was not mentioned. It was Š piro Galović who was to replace Ivan Stambolić as leader of the Belgrade Communists.

They could not dispense completely with Miloš Minić, however, even though he was no longer one of them. A leader of the Serbian wartime resistance, Minić made a brilliant political career. At the start of the war in 1941 he negotiated with Draža Mihailović as Tito’s envoy; after the war he acted as chief prosecutor in Mihailović’s trial (before the war Minić had been a junior lawyer in Čačak). But although he enjoyed Tito’s confidence, he never became a leading political personality in Serbia, due mainly to his long-standing feud with Petar Stambolić. Miloš and Petar had met in 1936, when they were young Communists and students at the University of Belgrade. They swore ‘eternal friendship’ then. Petar was best man at Miloš’s wedding. But their friendship at some point turned into animosity and open warfare. In 1981, when it was proposed that Minić take the post of Yugoslav prime minister, Stambolić accused the late president Tito of having persistently favoured Minić ‘against Serbia’s will’.

A family man, Minić was considered something of an ascetic among political functionaries, and someone who avoided open political battles. He sided with Tito in all crisis situations, but discreetly. He remained silent during the purges of Aleksandar Ranković and Marko Nikezić’s ‘liberals’. He defended the students against the police in 1968, although - according to Marković - behind the scenes he was pressing for use of the army against them. For some unknown reason he lost support among Serbian politicians at this time, but won esteem in the rest of Yugoslavia, particularly in Vojvodina. This despite the fact that in 1963 he had sided with Aleksandar Ranković, Krcun Penezić and Dragan Veselinov in the demand for dissolution of the provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo, when had Tito ended the ensuing dispute by declaring: ‘That’s out of question, comrades!’ Miloš survived, and changed his view. He became a welcome guest in Croatia, Vojvodina, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1982 the Croatian party, as well as Tito’s son Misha, praised his Yugoslav orientation.


June 1982


The 12th congress of the Yugoslav Communist party, the first since Tito’s death, was held under the slogan ‘After Tito - Tito!’, i.e. under the banner of continuity. That something was wrong became clear, however, after the new CK got down to ratifying the list of its presidents, which had been agreed in advance. Of the fourteen names submitted, only Draža Marković failed to get the necessary two thirds majority in the secret ballot conducted among the CK’s 159 members. The provinces had clearly voted against him (29 votes), but so too must have other republics, because he was 64 votes short. Serbia was invited to propose a new candidate. The Yugoslav leaders favoured Minić, but Minić was unacceptable to the Serbians. This time there was no Tito to whom the divided party could turn for a decision. There followed an avalanche of accusations, threats and resignations. P. Stambolić, Ljubičić, Čkrebić and I. Stambolić stood firmly behind Marković. The normally restrained P. Stambolić described the outcome as a ‘flagrant interference in Serbian affairs’. He ascribed the hostility to Marković to the latter’s efforts to ‘forestall a counter-revolution in Kosovo and revise the [constitutional] position of Vojvodina and Kosovo’. There followed a public quarrel between P. Stambolić and Minić. Stambolić raged: ‘This is your doing, Miloš!’. Minić’s reply was: ‘You, not I, have been ruling Serbia for thirty years.’ The frightened federal party leadership sought a way out by offering a fresh vote. Marković was elected.

This ended Minić’s political career, although he remained a member of the federal party’s CK until 1986, the year in which Slobodan Milošević became Serbian party leader. Minić would subsequently publicly condemn Milošević’s regime, while declaring himself a ‘Titoist’ and a Yugoslav. He died in 2003, at the age of 89.

This left Petar Stambolić, Marković, Ljubičić, Ćkrebić, Vidić and Ivan Stambolić to rule in Serbia. They appeared a stable team at first, but not for long. Marković’s victory at the 12th congress marked, in fact, the beginning of the end of his political career. Marković came from an old socialist family turned Communist. His father, a teacher and a decorated soldier from the Balkan Wars, was a member of the Serbian Social-Democratic Party who took part in the famous Vukovar conference at which the Yugoslav Communist Party was founded. When the war came, his two sons and a daughter left the university and joined the Partisans. Despite seemingly good credentials, however, Draža did not make it to the very top in Serbia until after the purge of Nikezić’s ‘liberals’, in which he played a key role.

It was actually Petar Stambolić who had proposed an unwilling Nikezić as Serbian party leader. Draža Marković, Nikezić’s former party and wartime colleague, had alone been against this choice. Marković noted in his memoirs that ‘Marko is not a political authority’; that he was ‘too much of a technocrat’; and that he wished to be a ‘Serbian Willy Brandt’. A few years later Stambolić and Marković would unite against Nikezić. Nikezić’s fall was followed with a purge of around five thousand of Serbia’s best and brightest cadres. Fifteen years later Marković would feel ‘closer to the positions of the "liberals" than to my own’; but he continued to defend his stance at the time, citing internal party politics, Serbia’s position, the alleged naivete of the ‘liberals’, etc. Marković was something of a political maverick, an abrasive and high-handed man who greatly enjoyed local hospitality on his travels through Serbia. His open opposition to constitutional changes prompted Tito in 1971 to ask Nikezić for his removal, but Nikezić refused: ‘I told him [Tito] that Draža is the president of the Serbian assembly, and that I cannot dismiss him just like that. If something was not going well in Serbia, it was first of all my responsibility.’ A year later Draža acted as Tito’s right hand in the removal of Nikezić and his co-thinkers.

26 January 1986

The situation in Serbia changed in 1984, when Ivan Stambolić became party leader. The prestige of the older generation had declined in the meantime, due to their open squabbling as well as to their advanced age. Ivan was well received. The fact that Petar was his uncle was certainly a recommendation, but it was his own efforts which earned him support among the younger party cadres. When Ivan Stambolić became Serbia’s leading politician, he appeared not to have any opposition. Where was Slobodan Milošević? Thanks to Ivan, he - not Š piro Galović - had become head of the Belgrade party branch, with a good prospect of succeeding Stambolić as party leader. Milošević also won the confidence of Ljubičić, Vidić and Čkrebić. Draža Marković alone was against his appointment, but then Marković had been against the appointment of Ivan Stambolić too.

On 26 January 1986 the Serbian CK met to choose the next party leader. There were seven candidates, but everyone knew it would be Milošević. Ivan Stambolić skilfully steered the meeting in his friend’s favour. He was actively supported by Nikola Ljubičić, who unreservedly praised Milošević as a man who ‘actively fought against nationalism, liberalism and all forms of counter-revolution in Belgrade’. However, things did not go quite as expected. It turned out that Milošević was not very popular. Many CK members feared his autocratic manner. Draža Marković, who led the anti-Milošević resistance, accused Ivan and Slobodan of seeking personal power The young party activists, uninvolved in such feuds, wished to see Š piro Galović or Radiša Gačić in the post. During a stormy debate that went on for two days it seemed that the favourite Milošević might lose. Those who wished to avoid a complete split were increasingly backing the imperturbable Radiša Gačić. But although even Milošević’s supporters found Gačić acceptable, he kept refusing this high post.

It was only recently that Gačić, happily forgotten and living a peaceful life, explained why. He said he had naturally been attracted by the idea of becoming party president, but that he could not defy Ivan Stambolić and his right hand Dragiša Pavlović (see below), who spent ‘days and nights’ trying to convince him that he should not stand against Slobodan Milošević. Pavlović argued that his candidature would cause an irreparable split in the party and the state, whereas with Milošević ‘we shall secure unity for another twenty-five years.’


26 February 1986

The Serbian party CK met on 26 February 1986 to confirm Milošević’s candidature in advance of the party congress. Ivan Stambolić took the chair. Milošević and Petar Stambolić sat in the front row, while three empty seats away from them sat Draža Marković, a sure sign of his political isolation. Despite the old custom that full unity should be simulated on such occasions, Marković and a small group of his supporters caused much trouble, asking for a broader list of candidates and democratisation of the party’s cadre policy. This was Marković’s political swan song. Having quarrelled with his closest friends, including Petar Stambolić, he resigned from all positions on the grounds that he would not ‘carry the responsibility for such a cadre policy’. Stubborn as always, he pursued the struggle against Milošević and the latter’s wife Mirjana (Mira) until his death. He paid for this by becoming the target of a vile personal campaign, during which he was proclaimed a national traitor as well as ‘commander of the [roast] lamb brigade’. Ljubičić asked that Draža be thrown out of the party for ‘compromising the revolutionary past’. Draža was Mirjana’s uncle: in this political conflict Mirjana’s father, Moma Marković, sided with his brother and Mirjana never again visited her father. Draža welcomed Milošević’s extradition to The Hague with the comment: ‘It is now her [Mirjana’s] turn.’

Draža Marković’s denunciation of Milošević’s regime compensated for the role he had played in bringing down Nikezić and his team. He made his peace with Ivan Stambolić and restored his old friendship with Petar. After the death of his son, his daughter-in-law married Slobodan Milošević’s favourite general, Nebojša Pavković, only to leave him after the latter’s arrest in 2003. Marković died in April 2005 from a stroke.


19 September 1987

Dragiša Pavlović was the youngest member of the Serbian leadership. Tall, good-looking, well educated, highly motivated and hard-working, he could have made a splendid career in many professions. Loyal to his friend Ivan Stambolić, he had worked for seven years as his cabinet secretary before becoming, in 1986, chief of the Belgrade Communists. He promptly found himself at the centre of a political maelstrom.

Pavlović was not liked by the bureaucracy or the ‘dissident’ intelligentsia. His party colleagues did not approve his easy manner, while the ‘dissident intelligentsia’ found him a good polemical target. His book Pitanje na odgovore [Questioning the Answers], in which he criticised leading dissidents by name, allowed the latter to come back. This was in fact one of the first free public debates with a leading political functionary. Pavlović’s endorsement of dialogue as a form of political struggle carried a seed of liberty.

Two events served as the immediate cause of his political downfall. First, he defended the journal Student when it got roundly attacked for making fun of ‘Youth Day’, honouring Tito’s official birthday. Pavlović was thus marked down as an ‘anti-Titoist’. The other, and far more important, event was his press conference on 11 September 1987, called in response to Serb nationalist rallies, at which Pavlović warned journalists not to play with fire. ‘The clapping palms of Serbs and Montenegrins are now turning into a fist, at which point the slide into tragedy becomes unstoppable. What needs to happen in order to persuade us that the trigger can be pulled even by a publicly delivered intemperate and hysterical word, or by a single line in a newspaper?’ He did not name names, but everyone knew he had in mind [the dailies] Politika and Politika Ekspres and Slobodan Milošević, who was fast acquiring the halo of leader of the ‘endangered Serbs’.

Two days later Milošević, his wife Mirjana and the chief editors of Politika, Politika Ekspres and Serbian state television met at Mira’s grandfather’s house in Požarevac. It was decided at this meeting to launch a campaign against Dragiša Pavlović. A text written by Mira Marković was published on the following day in Politika Ekspres under the signature of Dragoljub Milanović, a free-lance journalist who subsequently became director of Belgrade television.

Pavlović’s political life ended ten days later at the notorious 8th session [of the CK SKS], at which CK secretary Zoran Sokolović repeated almost verbatim the contents of the article published in Ekspres. The next speaker, General Ljubičić, asked the CK members ‘not to engage in too much debate, since we could get involved in discussing other comrades too’. The CK members, in other words, were being asked to obey, for otherwise they too could end in the same way. So the CK obeyed. Only seven of its members voted against Pavlović’s removal: Ivan Stambolić, Š piro Galović, Vasa Milinčević, Momčilo Baljak, Ivan Stojanović {former director of Politika], General Miroslav Đorđević and Borislav Srebrić. The conference was neatly brought to a close by Slobodan Milošević. Just a year and a half had passed since Dragiša Pavlović had supported his candidature for the post of Serbian party leader, on the grounds that he would ‘guarantee the future unity of the party leadership’.

Although Pavlović fought back most courageously at this conference, the defeat affected him more seriously than anyone else involved in the battle. He became a different man: listless, depressed and disheartened. He refused to accept the temporary salary to which he was entitled as a former party official, and spent the next year and a half registered as unemployed. His only political gesture was to write his account of the 8th session (Olako obećana brzina [Easily promised speed]). He became a loner, failing to keep in touch even with his own co-thinkers. He started a business, but without much enthusiasm. He died at the age of 53. In accordance with his wishes, his funeral was attended only by his family and close friends, including Ivan Stambolić, who would meet his death in tragic circumstances four years later.

Those who attended the 8th session knew full well that the real target had been Ivan Stambolić, not Dragiša Pavlović. Confused and distraught, Stambolić rose to Pavlović’s defence, but the man who spoke was no longer the person who had previously so masterfully dominated the political scene. He gave the impression of a desperate and sinking man, unable to grasp what was happening to him. At one point, while defending Pavlović, he turned directly to Milošević and warned him of the dangers of an inner-party conflict. ‘Who wants to speak next?’, Milošević replied coldly, continuing the meeting at which all the votes had already been cast. Serbia reacted with indifference to Stambolić’s downfall, while other republics secretly supported Milošević. The Bosnians liked his professed Titoist faith, the Montenegrins were proud of his Montenegrin origin, while the Croatian press presented him as an internationalist - in contrast to the ‘national-Communist’ Ivan Stambolić who in 1976 had joined Draža Marković in the demand for changes to the constitution and re-definition of the status of the provinces [Kosovo and Vojvodina]. This is why Ivan Stambolić failed to become federal prime minister in the mid 1980s: of the eight members of the Yugoslav presidency, only the Serbian representative voted in his favour.

The Yugoslav presidency met four days after the 8th session. Slobodan Milošević’s report on the 8th session appeared as the last item on the agenda (Other Matters). He stated that the meeting had been conducted in the spirit of ‘defence of Comrade Tito’s deeds and person, and struggle against Serb nationalism’. The chairman - Boško Krunić, representing Vojvodina - replied: ‘Thank you, Comrade Milošević. Any other question or contribution? No? In that case we may conclude.’ Six months later Krunić too became Milošević’s victim. Immediately after the end of the 8th session, the Yugoslav leaders were treated to a formal dinner by the city of Belgrade in an apparent celebration of Milošević’s victory.

Stambolić’s changed status was reflected in the press. At the official celebration of the 200th anniversary of Vuk Karadžić’s birth, the front row was occupied by Ivan Stambolić , Lazar Mojsov [Macedonia], Sinan Hasani [Kosovo], Nikola Ljubičić [Serbia] and Slobodan Milošević. The daily Politika published a picture of the group excluding Stambolić. The journal Intervju changed its front page at the last minute, replacing Stambolić’s picture by that of [pop star] Lepa Brena. On his return home, Stambolić found policemen on his doorstep. ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘We have an order to protect you.’ ‘From whom?’ ‘There is the possibility that you and your family might be disturbed.’ He called Slobodan Milošević. ‘I have nothing to do with that, and the press is free.’, was Milošević’s brief reply.

14 December 1987

The last act was played out on 14 December 1987, at a meeting of the Serbian party presidency. Milošević was silent. General Ljubičić explained why Stambolić had to go: ‘No one wishes to question the totality of Comrade Stambolić’s work, but some of his activity has proved unacceptable to party members and the broader public. This makes it necessary for us to do what must be done .’ And it was done - without any resistance. After the meeting a bottle of whisky was opened in honour of Ivan Stambolić’s departure.

Stambolić never got over the fact that Milošević had been his ‘baby’. A tragic engineer of his own fate, he carried this wound to the end of his life. Milošević never forgot him either: he feared his return, when Stambolić was nothing but an eloquent critic of his regime. His obsessive fear of the loser reached its culmination on the eve of the 2000 elections, when there was a rumour that Stambolić might run for presidency.

25 August 2000

On 25 August 2000 Stambolić was kidnapped while jogging on Kalemegdan. Bound with sticky tape, he spent the last few minutes of his life kneeling beside a pit that had been dug on Fruška Gora. He was killed with two bullets fired into the back of his head and thrown into the pit, filled with quick-lime. [According to Miloš Vasić, Atentat na Zorana [The Assassination of Zoran], Belgrade 2005, p. 13, he was killed by the Special Operations Unit of the Serbian state security service on Milošević’s orders.]

Ivan’s uncle, the once powerful Petar Stambolić, became a strident critic of ‘the Bolshevik manner of Milošević’s rule’. In January 1991 he was convinced that Yugoslavia would not survive: ‘I could never have believed that Serbia would sink so deeply into nationalism. This is why I no longer believe in Yugoslavia. War is inevitable.’ When told that social unrest would overthrow Milošević, he replied: ‘No, we must sink deeper still. Only after blood has been shed will the people say enough is enough.’ Asked in the middle of an intense campaign against him how he felt, he replied: ‘It is difficult to restrain one’s anger that one’s hands are tied.’

It is probable that without General Nikola Ljubičić there would have been no 8th session and no victory of Milošević. Once perceived as a political ornament, Ljubičić became involved in all the internal political battles. He supported Petar Stambolić and Draža Marković against Miloš Minić, Ivan Stambolić and Slobodan Milošević against Draža Marković, and Slobodan Milošević against Ivan Stambolić. After his job was done, he was removed from public life and found peace in obscurity. Following Milošević’s departure to The Hague, he suffered a stroke that left him incapacitated. He died in 2005 at the age of 89, and was buried with the highest state honours. General Petar Gračanin, the former chief of staff of the federal army who at one point kept the seat of the Serbian presidency warm for Milošević, also died from a stroke, in 2004, aged 81. He spent his last years at a nursing home, oblivious to the outside world. He was buried in accordance with his wishes without military honours. Zoran Sokolović, the former secretary of the Serbian party’s CK, and the main speaker at the 8th session, committed suicide in 2001 in the family orchard.

Translated and edited from an article in NIN (Belgrade), 2 June and 9 June 2005.


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