BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA — He was born under German occupation, his family eventually broken up and devastated by three suicides. But he probably would have led an ordinary life - had he not married one well-connected Communist, and become the best friend of another.
But Slobodan Milosevic made a mercurial rise to the top. Now the Yugoslav president, he is thought to have no real spiritual or emotional attachment to Kosovo. Rather, Kosovo is Mr. Milosevic's tool, his ticket to power and key to political survival.
How far will Milosevic go in his resistance to bombing? How much power will he gain during a state of war? And, finally, how much damage will Milosevic's forces inflict on the ethnic Albanians, as he appears to be conducting a campaign of "ethnic cleansing?"
"Milosevic's position has never been better," says Ognjen Pribicevic, a political analyst in Belgrade. "The only thing NATO managed to do is unite all the Serbs."
Since NATO began its attacks, Milosevic has held firm in his earlier refusal to sign a peace deal on Kosovo. Yesterday, however, he met with Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, whom Milosevic trusts because of Moscow's stand against NATO attacks.
Slobodan Milosevic was born in 1941, just after the Germans occupied Yugoslavia. His father, a schoolteacher, left the family after World War II and committed suicide in 1962. His mother, also a teacher, raised the family under strict Communist doctrine. She too committed suicide, in 1972. A favorite uncle also killed himself.
Young Slobodan was said to be serious and disciplined, uninterested in sports or other extracurricular activities. He fell in love with a classmate, Mirjana Markovic, whose extended family was well connected in the Communist Party.
Milosevic went to university in Belgrade and became close friends with Ivan Stambolic, who was also well connected in Communist Yugoslavia.
Stambolic took Milosevic to the top, getting him lucrative jobs in the 1970s running a state gas company and bank. In 1986, Stambolic became president of Serbia. He named Milosevic head of Serbia's Central Committee.
When a crisis was brewing in Kosovo in 1987, Stambolic sent Milosevic as an envoy to the autonomous region, to quell Serbian demonstrations against the predominantly ethnic Albanian police. Milosevic did just the opposite, whipping the crowd into a nationalist frenzy. "No one will dare beat you," Milosevic famously told the crowd.
Milosevic then went back to Belgrade and sacked Stambolic. From there, he stirred up more nationalism that would quickly fan through the ethnically mixed Yugoslavia. That nationalism, analysts say, was more politically opportune than genuinely ideologic.
'We can surely fight'
When Milosevic became president of Serbia in 1989, he timed his inauguration ceremony to coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the legendary battle in which the Ottoman Turks overran the Serbs.
"If we Serbs cannot work, we can surely fight," Milosevic said in his acceptance speech.
"I was disappointed with his speech [because it was nationalist]," recalls Stevan Mirkovic, the former commander of the Yugoslav Army under dictator Josip Broz Tito. "That's where he got the power and the support he has right now, and he's very hard to overthrow because of his connection with Kosovo. Kosovo can never be questioned by the Serbs."
As president, Milosevic stripped Kosovo of its autonomy. Croatia broke from Yugoslavia in 1991, then Slovenia went, and in the war in Bosnia, the term "ethnic cleansing" was coined.
Milosevic's role in Bosnia and Croatia was somewhat unclear, but he was widely believed to have directed the Bosnian Serbs and supplied them with weapons. He signed the Dayton peace accords in 1995, and was blamed at home for losing the Serb-populated regions of Krajina and Slavonia in Croatia and an estimated 20 percent of Bosnia.
During three years without a war, he lost popularity at home and was almost overthrown by students and opposition politicians in the winter of 1996-1997.
All that changed, however, with the outbreak of another ethnic war, in February 1998, in the place where it had all begun, the place where the man had been made - Kosovo.
And now, as NATO airstrikes enter the eighth day, fellow Serbs rally around Milosevic, holding to the nationalism he stirred up more than a decade ago.