Letter from Belgrade: The Redeemers
Can Serbia's new leaders overcome the legacy of Slobodan Milosevic?
By Misha Glenny
The New Yorker
October 30, 2000
In Belgrade, a harsh, dry autumnal heat usually lasts well into late September or early October. People swelter in sweatdrenched T-shirts, with dust kicking against the backs of their throats, and then, suddenly, clouds descend and the humidity increases for two or three days. At this point, you start bracing yourself for the kosava, an icy wind that whips in from the east and tunnels its way through Knez Mihailova, the main shopping boulevard. On October 5th, as I drove over Branko Bridge toward the old city, I noted that it was the first day of climatic transition.
It was a Thursday, a little before noon, but there wasn't much traffic. Driving in Belgrade had been risky for several days, because members of the Resistance group Otpor had been alternately throwing up barricades and dismantling them. Improvised piles of scrap vehicles and trash cans could spring up suddenly, trapping you in the wrong part of town for hours. Otpor's barricades had been the primary expression of civil disobedience in Belgrade, and there was no sign of them now, but to be on the safe side and to protect the car from either revolutionary fervor or vindictive policing, I parked it on a quiet street just past the Moskva Hotel, a remnant of Art Nouveau architecture. The city has suffered more bombing than any other European capital in the twentieth century except Warsaw, and not much of historical significance has survived. Although Belgrade rises at the spectacular confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, it is an ugly place dominated by grim, gray buildings put up in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. A campaign of civil disobedience and a general strike had been in effect throughout Serbia since September 29th, the day after the federal election commission announced that Vojislav Kostunica, the Presidential candidate of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS, a recently cobbled together coalition of eighteen traditionally fractured parties, had failed to win an outright victory over Slobodan Milosevic in the general elections. A reserved and thoughtful academic and a constitutional lawyer committed to legitimate institutions, Kostunica appeared to be incorruptible, which set him apart from leading Serb politicians of any persuasion. Since he had so clearly won a majority of votes, and since the election commission had so clearly been going through contortions to fix the result to benefit Milosevic, DOS refused to participate in the farce of a runoff election. It would try to force Milosevic's hand by mobilizing the nearly two and a half million people who voted for Kostunica.
Despite his Marxist education, Milosevic appeared blind to the implications of a workers' rebellion. He gave a speech on Saturday, September 30th, at a military academy near Belgrade, warning that "the enemy within" was about to launch a perfidious attack on behalf of American imperialism. He seemed not to understand what was happening in the Serbian provinces. Perhaps he was fooled by the normal flow of fife in Belgrade. The capital was the one place where the campaign of civil disobedience and the strike took only partial hold. The most common explanation for Belgrade's passivity was "the media blockade." Independent radio and television have been proliferating throughout the provinces since the end of the Kosovo war last year, but in Belgrade the propaganda of Radio Television Serbia and other pro-government stations dominated the airwaves. The main independent outlets were either controlled by the state or jammed.
Belgraders were also afraid that Milosevic might use the full force of the police and military in the event of a confrontation. Resistance in Belgrade, although steady and widespread, has traditionally been channelled through institutions: political parties, research centers, and even, on occasion, parliament. The peasants in central and southern Serbia, on the other hand, have several times in modern history exploded violently after tolerating oppressive regimes for years - sometimes decades. The most famous of these incidents was the Timok Rebellion of 1883, which was sparked by the refusal of King Milan Obrenovic to acknowledge that the Serbian Radicals, peasant socialists inspired by Russian narodnik ideology, had won a huge electoral victory. The tactics used by the peasants then were similar to those employed this September and October. They barricaded the main roads and government offices in eastern and central Serbia and liberated nearly a third of the country. The rebels were on the verge of cutting Serbia in two along an east-west axis when King Milan persuaded the Army to use its new Austrian cannon on them. The leaders of the uprising, first-generation intellectuals of peasant stock, either fled the country or were captured and killed.
By the beginning of October this year, while the citizens of Belgrade hesitated to rally aggressively behind Kostunica and DOS, the provinces were losing patience. The anger of farmers was exacerbated by a dearth of diesel fuel, spare parts, and fertilizer, and by the fact that the government refused to guarantee set prices for farm products. For the first time since Milosevic came to power, rural workers joined with militants in the provincial cities to put their full weight behind a protest movement.
The morning of October 5th, over breakfast, I had reflected upon one particular sentence in that day's edition of V.I.P., which had arrived by fax, as usual, sometime before dawn. V.I.P. is a newsletter that journalists, opposition activists, government officials, and many others in Belgrade - in addition to academics and the staffs of foreign ministries around the world - scrutinize to make sense of the bewildering cascade of statements, rumors, and lies that are essential to political life in Yugoslavia. It lists them all, in English, according to importance and credibility, occasionally adding analyses that are striking in their accuracy and reliability. The commentaries in V.I.P. are unsigned but everybody knows that they come from Braca Grubacic, who is perhaps the best-informed person in the country. Grubacic somehow maintained close contact with both Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party and the key opposition figures. Rumor has it that he worked for State Security - a common accusation in Yugoslavia but damaging nonetheless. As far as I have been able to ascertain, however, everybody trusted Grubacic except State Security.
The sentence that was so intriguing in V.I.P. that morning was part of a statement from DOS. It said that the opposition would "insist on non-violent forms of pressure," which was Kostunica's position. But - and this is what was significant - "the citizens have made it clear that they will no longer be victims who will yield to the violence of Slobodan Milosevic's regime without offering resistance." A group of provincial mayors had proposed a march on Belgrade and had discussed it over the weekend of September 30th with DOS leaders, who promised their support. The project was launched under the slogan "Srbija Dolazi u Beograd" ("Serbia Comes to Belgrade"). V.I.P. seemed to be indicating that the opposition was going to use force to bring down Milosevic. Or was the ambiguity of the phrasing a result of two different schools of thought within the opposition?
A few hours later, I ran into the descendants of the nineteenth-century Timok rebels, coming toward me along Knez Milos, the boulevard that links the center of town with Dedinje, the luxurious neighborhood where Milosevic lives. A huge parade of men, about five abreast and five hundred yards long, was moving north toward me on the right-hand side of the road. They were chanting the names of the two towns they came from, a few hours distant, in western Sumadija, the geographical and historical heart of modern Serbia: "Cacak! Valjevo! Cacak! Valjevo!"
I joined the parade just before it passed the Ministry of Defense, still the mangled wreck fashioned seventeen months earlier by NATO bombs. The Sumadija warriors ignored it, keeping their eyes straight ahead, in the direction of Takovska Street and Tasmajdan Park. On this day, Slobodan Milosevic was their target, not the West.The men were dressed in jean jackets, T-shirts, and worn work pants. They would never pass muster in Belgrade's genteel society, the fin svet, with its coffeehouses, receptions, and educated middle class. Their faces were unshaven, and many were pockmarked or scarred. Their forearms resembled legs of mutton. Among them were workers from a vacuum-cleaner factory that was badly hit during the NATO campaign. Many others worked for a large food-processing company that produces jams and preserves made from fruit grown in the rich orchards surrounding Cacak.
Nowadays there is scant evidence of the thick forest, or suma, from which the Sumadija region takes its name. It had been cleared by early in the twentieth century to make way for an expanding pig-farming industry. But in the nineteenth century Sumadija was an impenetrable area that bid the hajduks, peasant outlaws whose exploits were recorded in epic poems and songs. Men from this region formed the core of the force that drove the Ottomans from Serbia in the uprisings of 1804 and 1815. Ever since then, the Sumadinci have had a particular importance in Serbian national mythology. If the Sumadinci march to the front, it is said, the battle is already half won. They are less temperamental than the mountain Serbs of Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. They do not take up arms as readily. But once roused, they are determined and fierce. When central Serbia resisted the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War, Valjevo and Cacak provided the highest percentage of non-Communist fighters pitted against the Wehrmacht's regional command posts. Less honorably, many of the paramilitaries who murdered large numbers of people in the Croatian regions of Kordun and Banija in the summer of 1991 came from Valjevo and nearby Loznica.
Every ten yards or so, a demonstrator waved a huge flag. Some of the flags represented the Democratic Party, the largest opposition group in DOS, and some displayed Otpor's clenched white fist on a black background. But the dominant symbol belonged to the Chetniks, the Serbian royalists who have covered Serbia with both glory and shame for a hundred years. The Chetnik movement evolved from the chetas, the Serbian guerrilla bands that terrorized the Macedonian countryside in the first decade of the twentieth century as they competed for dominance of the key strategic territory of the southern Balkans against their equally ferocious Bulgarian and Greek counterparts, the komitadjis and the andartes. The Chetniks helped to impose a rule of terror over the Kosovo Albanians and the Macedonians after Serbia had absorbed their territories in the First Balkan War of 1912. During the First World War, they contributed to the heroic defense of Serbia against the Austro-Hungarian Empire and to the Allies' victory on the Macedonian front. During the Second World War, the British and the Americans criticized the Chetnik Movement, as the followers of Commander Draza Mihailovic were known, for not standing up to the Germans the way Tito's Communist Partisans did. But that is a simplistic version of the truth, which was successfully reinforced by Titoist historians in the postwar period. In some areas, the Chetniks fought courageously against both the Nazis and the Partisans in a struggle against totalitarianism in the Balkans.
As a Communist, Slobodan Milosevic put down political roots with Tito, but during the nineties he cunningly melded the symbolism of Yugoslav Communism with that of Serbian nationalism. For a time, the Red Star and the Chetniks' four Cyrillic "S"s were afforded equal prominence, just as senior representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church were carefully placed beside leading Yugoslav and Serbian Communists on ceremonial occasions. In order to prosecute his proxy wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic needed the support both of Partisan generals in the Yugoslav military and of Chetnik paramilitaries. Depending on his audience and his tactical requirements, he would emphasize as his war aim either the maintenance of a Yugoslav federation to fight secessionist movements or the establishment of a new order that would permit "all Serbs to live in one state" - a Greater Serbia.
The Chetniks believed that they were again fighting the battle they had fought in the Second World War, a battle against Croats, Muslims, and Albanians (supported this time around by American imperialists) who wanted nothing less than the "extermination of the Serbs," as a Chetnik position paper put it sixty years ago. When Milosevic decided to capitulate to NATO in Kosovo, the many Chetnik paramilitary groups that were there to loot and to expel and murder Albanians felt that the Yugoslav military could have held out longer. Milosevic ordered the paramilitaries to disarm and to return to civilian life, and at this point, according to intelligence sources in Belgrade, they finally turned against him.
During the march, I found myself beside a big man in a loose white peasant shirt who carried the Chetnik standard: a skull and crossbones surrounded by the words "Sloboda ili smrt - od Korduna do Soluna" ("Freedom or death - from Kordun to Salonika"). I doubt that any Croat would be surprised by the now illusory claim to Kordun, a rural area south of Zagreb, but I wonder how the Greeks, supposedly lasting friends of the Serbian people, would react to a Serbian push toward the northern Greek port of Thessaloniki. I asked the man next to the standard-bearer why he had come to Belgrade that morning. "To bring down the government , he said simply, "and we won't leave until we finish the job." Then he grinned, and flashed open his jacket to reveal a pistol. All around us men were singing, "Spasi Srbiju, i ubij se, Slobodane, Slobodane!" ("Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan, Slobodan"). The first phrase has powerful nationalist and religious significance for Serbs. The second taunts Milosevic, whose parents both committed suicide.
At National Front Street, I left the marchers and went into the headquarters of the FreeB92 Radio station to talk to Veran Matic, a jovial, optimistic, and hardworking man with a thick, closely trimmed black beard and mustache. Over the past eleven years, Matic has built up the best radio news-gathering service in the country and expanded the company into publishing and film production. At the start of the Kosovo war in 1999, armed police entered the station's studios in Dom Omladine, a building in the old town, and seized all the equipment. It was not long before B92 had regrouped as a pirate station, broadcasting on various frequencies and over the Internet in order to dodge the zealous jammers of the Telecommunications Ministry. Denounced as a NATO spy at home, Matic was accused by detractors abroad of giving succor to Milosevic when he published an article on the New York Times Op-Ed page criticizing the NATO bombing.
Matic took me out onto a balcony, away from eavesdroppers. Unlike many Serbs, he is rarely conspiratorial, so when he indicates that he has something important to say, I listen. "Otpor is going to storm Dom Omladine at three o'clock," he told me. "The plan is to seize the studios and feed the output of our present studio back into Dom Omladine and onto 92.5 FM again." He also told me that DOS was planning a similar action at Radio Television Serbia, the most imposing symbol of Milosevic's power.
I walked across Tasmajdan Park to the DOS office, which is on a pretty, cobblestoned street. Several tall, bull-like paramilitary types with stubbly beards were stationed protectively around the building. Like the demonstrators from Sumadija, they let their jackets slip open to reveal guns. Inside, the organizers of the protests strolled in and out of meetings. While I was chatting in the reception area, Cedomir Jovanovic, one of DOS's key operational figures, walked in. He muttered something about a flak jacket, and patted his rigid chest. "You're going to need one," he said. "We're going to storm the parliament. It is all planned. We will demand the government's resignation and insist on the recognition of Kostunica." I was taking notes and realized that I had actually forgotten the date, so I asked one of the many young receptionists who are a hallmark of opposition activity to remind me. "Sudnji dan," she replied. Judgment Day.
As though they were playing in a Feydeau farce, President-elect Kostunica and Zoran Djindjic, the head of the Democratic Party, kept leaving and rejoining a meeting through a variety of doors so as to avoid bumping into each other. The two faces of Serbia's revolution could hardly be less similar. Kostunica's meek expression, a mop of dark hair that covers his face, and his hesitant shuffle indicate that he is a reluctant revolutionary. Djindjic, almost too handsome, looks sleek and poised. He makes revolution sexy. Kostunica eked out an existence as an academic researcher after he was fired from a university job because of his political views. He is the consummate East European dissident. Djindjic, by contrast, is a politician (although he, too, has an accomplished academic record) and has worked part time as a businessman, dealing in industrial machinery from Eastern-bloc countries.
Kostunica speaks English well and can converse in French and in German. He is widely read, and has translated "The Federalist Papers" and written scholarly analyses of Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Locke. Yet he rarely travels outside Serbia. He spends his summers in a small house in the central Serbian countryside, tootling around in a battered old Yugo. He is intellectually cosmopolitan but leads a life that is very private, parochial, and deeply attached to Serbian culture in the narrow sense. He abhors violence and is politically inexperienced.
Djindjic strutted around DOS headquarters, dictating instructions to an adoring mobile crisis unit. Kostunica had won the election and was theoretically now the President of the Yugoslav federation, but one got the sense that Djindjic had to protect the revolution from Kostunica's existential doubt. Djindjic had been preparing for this moment almost his entire adult life. Since the early seventies, when he studied for a doctorate in philosophy under Jurgen Habermas in Germany, he has devoted himself to rebellion. He is brash but organized and he dominates small groups.
Kostunica is a constitutionalist whose authority derives from a mass popular following. Djindjic is a populist who depends on an institution, the Democratic Party, for his power. The two don't seem to like each other much, but at this moment each depended utterly on the other's presence and peculiar abilities.
As I walked along Kosovska Street toward the back of the parliament building, the shouts and whistling became deafening. Workers from the country's largest oil refinery had draped themselves over an oil truck daubed with the message "Pancevo on strike." An elegant gray-haired woman I took to be in her eighties shook a baby rattle rhythmically. (The popular expression for Milosevic's end is "broken like a rattle.") "Gotov je! Gotov je!" - "He's finished. He's finished!" - she kept repeating. A group of bikers drove around on Yamahas, frenetically waving the Democratic Party flag. "Srbija je ustala! Srbije je ustala!" ("Serbia has arisen!") was the common cry of farmers, workers, intellectuals, students, policemen, soldiers, Gypsies, Hungarians and Slovaks from Vojvodina, Muslims from the Sandzak. A few days later, opposition leaders would play down the spontaneous nature of this moment, claiming that they had had everything planned through contacts in the Army, police, and State Security. But they could have struck a thousand deals with hesitating sympathizers inside Milosevic's apparatus and it would have come to nothing had not perhaps half a million people gathered together in one Belgrade square.
Near Tasmajdan Park, the crowd coming toward me got thicker. I was confused about what they were doing until I noticed the red eyes, the choking. They had been caught in a tear-gas attack. At the top of Knez Milos, I was swept away by a brigade of Otpor activists with bandannas over their faces and fists out. "Back we go! Back we go!" they chanted, sweeping me forward, in the direction of the parliament building. I wriggled away from them and into the park, where hundreds of people were retching or lying on the ground.
From a slight incline in the park, I could see the parliament building, which was on fire. Flames shot out and demonstrators ecstatically waved flags and smashed windows. On the steps that sweep up to the main entrance, the police were in disorganized retreat. I tried to get closer, but I was stuck in a thick fog of gas that attacked my windpipe and stung my eyes. Mucus started pouring from my nose, and I stumbled over people lying on the ground and twitching, or hiding behind cars, their faces buried in their shirts.
Back in the park, the gas lifted and the crowd regrouped. People hurled abuse at the retreating police. "Ustase! Ustase!" they screamed, using the term for Croatia's Second World War fascists. There was a platform in front of the parliament, and soon people were giving little speeches about the glorious revolution. A soldier received a hysterical reception when he announced, "We will never shoot on the people!" A Chetnik demanded the return of Kosovo. "Kosovo is Serbia, Kosovo is Serbia!" Milan Protic, the newly elected mayor of Belgrade, took the stage and begged the crowd to put out the fire in the parliament building, which was burning down behind him.
By this time, the party had begun. Techno-pop anthems were pumping out of gigantic loudspeakers. People were dancing, embracing, praying. I wove through the merrymakers and made it to Braca Grubacic's offices, where the V.I.P. newsletter is produced. Grubacic sat sipping a whiskey and smoking a Marlboro Light. "It is all over now, Misha," he said. "It is done, thanks God."
A few days later, after Vojislav Kostunica had officially been inaugurated as President, he and I sat together in a room that seemed to be half the length of a football field, at the Palace of the Federation, on Lenin Boulevard. "This is my office according to the constitution," Kostunica explained. Milosevic had preferred the White Palace, the former royal residence. Waiters and butlers were scurrying around, perplexed but enthusiastic, relearning their jobs. For years, they had turned up for work every day and done nothing. Their situation was just a small example of the mess left by Milosevic. Nothing works properly in Belgrade, and it will take years to put things right. "It haunts me," Kostunica said morosely. "The terrible responsibility haunts me."
When I asked Kostunica to tell me about his childhood, he was not particularly introspective or reflective. He spoke of the intellectual influences of Serbian liberalism on him and his father and then pointedly brought up a historical irony that is evidently very important to him. "A few weeks after I was born, in Belgrade on March 24,1944," he told me, "there was a massive Anglo-American bombing campaign that resulted in the destruction of central Belgrade and a large number of civilian casualties. Several hospitals were hit and my parents were forced to flee the capital with me to escape the attack waves." The bombing was aimed at the Nazi occupiers of Serbia, but the collateral damage was enormous. "Fifty-five years later," Kostunica went on, "My birthday coincided with the opening of another Anglo-American-led bombing campaign whose targets were not just in Belgrade but in large parts of Serbia."
Serbs would not have voted for Kostunica if he were not a nationalist. He attacked Milosevic relentlessly for what he calls the regime's "betrayal" of Serbs in Croatia and Kosovo, and he made it clear that he considered the United States complicit in that betrayal for supporting "Albanian terrorism" as a means to America's imperialist ends. Kostunica's suspicion of great powers (he has no kind words to say about the Russians, either) is nonetheless ameliorated by his obsession with democracy and the rule of law, and his abhorrence of violence. He has often criticized the Hague Tribunal on war crimes because he considers it a policy instrument of the United States and not an organ of impartial justice. And yet two years ago he openly criticized Milosevic for restricting the visas of tribunal members, since this violated a commitment of cooperation made in the Dayton peace agreement. "Everything must take place within a democratic or legal framework," he says, and it is almost inconceivable that Kostunica would consider war or violence a legitimate political instrument.
Most discussion of Serbian politics inside and outside the country during the Milosevic years has been refracted through the prism of the question of nationalism. In 1987, Milosevic tapped a rich vein of Serb-nationalist neurosis to destroy his domestic political opponents. He did so with the collaboration, both active and passive, of a large number of Serbs inside Serbia's boundaries and beyond them. It is impossible to quantify this support, since it emerged within a one-party system and was manipulated by the organs of a totalitarian state. Unlike Hitler, Milosevic didn't succeed within a democracy.
In 1988, Milosevic launched what he called an "anti-bureaucratic revolution." Yugoslavia was at that time divided into eight parts, two of which, the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina, were led by politicians who were hostile to Milosevic. Part of another republic, Montenegro, was home to a strong pro-Serb population. Inspired by Milosevic's populist slogans, tens of thousands of Serb demonstrators took to the streets and stormed the regional governments in Vojvodina and Montenegro. In Kosovo, Milosevic simply bullied the legitimate government, which included many Albanians, out of office. This did not rid Yugoslavia of bureaucracy but, rather, replaced the legally constituted bureaucracy with Milosevic cronies. Kosovo and Vojvodina were stripped of their autonomy and leaders of the Montenegrin government stepped into line behind Milosevic. The government of Serbia gained control of their votes in the Yugoslav federation, which meant that Milosevic could pretty much bulldoze through whatever policy he wanted. Many Serbs, now fed up with Milosevic, have conveniently forgotten the fanatical support they lent him at the time.
A majority of Serbs were convinced that they were involved in necessary defensive wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and they were often unaware of or unwilling to believe the stories of atrocities being committed in their name. Milosevic and his collaborators commissioned the butchery of hundreds of thousands of people, most of them non-Serbs. This not only brought about the complete destruction of Yugoslavia. With the defeats in Croatia and Kosovo and the partial defeat in Bosnia, the very nationalist goals that Milosevic had promised to achieve also lay in tatters. In historical terms, this is, incidentally, Milosevic's only positive achievement. He killed the possibility of a Greater Serbian revival.
The Hungarians of Vojvodina and the Muslims of the Sandzak both supported DOS and the events of October 5th, which is a good beginning for a process of internal reconciliation. (The Kosovo Albanians are a separate case because they now live in a U.N. protectorate.) But Serbia's neighbors are understandably suspicious about what is happening in the country. First, they do not believe that the leopard has changed its spots. Second, they fear that Western financial and political aid will be diverted from them to the Serbs. There are concrete steps that Kostunica and DOS could take to alleviate these fears. They could, for instance, publicly renounce territorial claims on Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Bosnia's case, Yugoslavia could also upgrade its diplomatic mission in Sarajevo to full ambassadorial level. Issues like the massacre of Srebrenica and the siege of Vukovar win require much more time. It took three decades for the Germans to come to terms with the Nazis' crimes, and the Japanese are still in denial about atrocities they committed in the nineteen-thirties and forties. In Serbia, the issue is complicated by the fact that many Serbs were also victims. Serbia is host to the largest refugee population in Europe: more than six hundred thousand Serbs from all over the former Yugoslavia. It is unrealistic to expect that a people traumatized by Milosevic, by regional wars, and by a war with NATO will immediately turn to investigating their collective responsibility for ten years of regional violence.
There has been a fearful breakdown of internal civil order in Serbia. The wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo spawned a violent criminal class throughout the former Yugoslavia, especially in Serbia. Plunder, arms and drug smuggling, prostitution, and, later, sanctions-busting created great wealth for these people. They in turn provided security and money for Milosevic. His state, or what remained of it, facilitated the expropriation of businesses and banks on the gangsters' behalf.
In Kostunica's most influential book, "Party Pluralism or Monism," written with a co-author in 1983, he observed, "In the development of a society, there exist relatively rare moments when the art of creative politics can act unbound. This is the time that immediately follows seizure of powers and revolutions when those at the center of power have at their disposal much greater freedom of choice in fashioning basic social and political institutions than is the case under ordinary circumstances." Kostunica now finds himself in precisely this position. But at the very moment when he needs to exercise his freedom of choice in building new democratic institutions in Yugoslavia, he is trapped by his obsession with legal procedure. His supporters greatly fear the indecision that is often written in his face. "The radical wing of DOS had made preparations" - for the resistance in early October - "about which they kept me in the dark," he told me. "There was a lot I didn't know about." The man who launched a million Serbs was uncomfortable with their revolutionary potential. "I was frightened of the violence of the regime and I was worried about a possible violent response of the people that might destroy everything we had achieved."
Only a few weeks after the events in Belgrade on October 5th, Kostunica's position looks precarious. He has neglected to form a professional cabinet of advisers to deal with the immense political and organizational problems now facing him. His competitors command well-oiled machines that are skilled in outsmarting opponents, and all the while, of course, Slobodan Milosevic sits in his house in Dedinje and maintains his contacts in the Army and the secret police.
Kostunica's power is based on the popular support with which he was able to deliver the decisive blow to Milosevic, and he is not inclined to use this popularity to strengthen the limited powers of his office: he can convene, dismiss, and dissolve parliament, and he is chairman of the Supreme Defense Council, which commands the Yugoslav Army. The little he can do is dependent on the proper functioning of the Yugoslav federation, which is now the union of Serbia with Montenegro. In the absence of a working federation, power devolves to the two republics, whose governments may act for all intents and purposes as two different countries.
Milo Djukanovic, Montenegro's reformist President, has been reluctant to back Kostunica. But if Kostunica fails either to form a new federal government or to persuade Montenegro to remain in the federation, his power will start to evaporate. A new Serbian parliament will be elected in December, which will almost certainly mean the end of Milosevic's Socialist Party in its present form and a victory for DOS. The current Serbian President, Milan Milutinovic - a Milosevic stooge and an indicted war criminal - will undoubtedly leave soon after. Zoran Djindjic will probably become the most influential politician in Serbia, because his party will control more seats in parliament than any other party. It is possible to imagine a functioning Serbian government and a functioning Montenegrin government but no Yugoslav government in which case Kostunica's role would be reduced to accepting the credentials of new ambassadors and opening rebuilt hospitals.
In the days after October 5th, Djindjic and his supporters began accumulating power using non-parliamentary methods. They formed a DOS crisis headquarters, independent of Kostunica. Crisis committees began seizing control of key government institutions, like the federal customs service, banks, and large enterprises. DOS justified their actions by pointing quite reasonably to the danger of Milosevic attempting to restore his power through these institutions. But some of Kostunica's supporters believe that people around Djindjic were consolidating their power at the expense of Kostunica.
Djindjic is not popular with ordinary Serbs. For one thing, he is regarded by many of them as an outsider. Some of the worst Serb leaders over the last ten years were not from Serbia proper but from the Serbian populations of Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, or Montenegro. Slobodan Milosevic was born in Pozarevac, in Serbia, but his family is from Montenegro. Djindjic comes from Samac, in Bosnia. Kostunica is a Srbijanac, a Serb from Serbia proper, or Narrow Serbia. He was born in Belgrade, but his father is from the heartland of central Sumadija.
Djindjic was criticized for negotiating with Milosevic in 1997 about a possible power-sharing deal, and he compromised his reputation further when he fled Serbia for the comparative safety of Montenegro during the NATO bombing campaign. He had good cause to suspect that Milosevic might try to kill him, but in the eyes of his compatriots this was cowardice. Djindjic could not have beaten Milosevic and he knew it. But he is a good politician, and he saw that Kostunica could prise open the Milosevic regime. His support of Kostunica for President was tactically shrewd.
Kostunica does possess one considerable political advantage that he is learning to use deftly - the West. Persuaded by his sincerity, both the European Union and the United States were quick to lift the first wall of sanctions on Yugoslavia. This was a political triumph for Kostunica domestically. "He is the key player in the diplomatic and economic rehabilitation of Yugoslavia, and this is reinforcing his reputation not just with ordinary Serbs but with important figures inside DOS as well," a senior Western diplomat said to me in mid-October. "He is the face that gives Yugoslavia credibility."
That Yugoslavia is still a complete mess is a truism, but the prospect of a nonviolent, non-aggressive, democratic Serbia brings with it a monumental historical opportunity - nothing less than peace in the Balkans. For more than a hundred and twenty years, the region has endured exceptional brutality and destruction, even by the standards of twentieth-century Europe. In the First World War, the Balkans were fought over by the Austro-Hungarians and the Russians. Twenty-three years later, the Nazis tore through the region viciously, triggering many of the bloody struggles that were tragically repeated in the nineteen-nineties. In the most recent wars, which were not pan-Balkan but pan-Yugoslav, Milosevic and his cohorts were the chief villains. When Kostunica said to me that he is haunted by the responsibility he has been given, he was talking about the responsibility to a Serbia that was sinned against by Milosevic and to a Serbia that sinned with him. Kostunica has a redemptive quality, but there is so much redeeming to be done that one wonders if he has the necessary strength. It seems clear at this point, however, as a striking miner said to me in the first few days of October, "Nema drugog": there is no one else.
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Misha Glenny has covered the Balkan crisis since 1986. He is the author of The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers, 1804-1999, and The Fall of Yugoslavia.
Also by Misha Glenny: Only in the Balkans and So Milosevic Leaves Serbia -- and Goes Where?
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