For weeks, the democratic opposition in Yugoslavia had plastered its slogan—”He’s Finished”—over elections posters of the ruling government throughout the land. Just twelve days after the presidential elections were held, the Serb people could rally behind their new slogan—”He’s Gone.” Slobodan Milosevic, who had dominated politics in Serbia, the former Yugoslavia, and the rest of the Balkans for more than a decade, had been defeated at the ballot box, and then run out of office by a tumultuous population demanding that their vote for change be respected.
When Milosevic called a snap election for the Yugoslav presidency just weeks after having engineered a change in the constitution that would allow him to stand for another two terms in office, few expected that the end result would be a democratic revolution reminiscent of the exhilarating events the rest of Eastern Europe had witnessed more than a decade ago. How did this happen? What does the future hold for the new regime? And what are the lessons for American policy? A week after the extraordinary defeat of Milosevic’s viciously nationalist regime by the forces of democratic changes, it is possible to begin answering these questions.
The Rapid End
For thirteen years, Milosevic maintained power in Serbia and Yugoslavia through a combination of whipped up nationalism and fear. Initially, nationalism was the stronger factor of his support—but four lost wars, the defeat of his dream for a “Greater Serbia,” and continued international isolation meant that his control had to rely increasingly on brute power and the fear that dictatorial rule brings with it.
Dictators have a tendency to misjudge the degree and nature of their popular support, and Milosevic proved no different than those that had gone before. Faced with a weak and notoriously divided opposition, the Serb strongman calculated that he could extend his tenure in power by garnering more votes than his opponents could in an election. Control of the media—and the electoral commission—would in any case provide him a decisive advantage.
But Milosevic had not counted on the possibility that the opposition would be able to agree on a single candidate, let alone on one who both had legitimate nationalist credentials and a reputation for integrity. Nor was he prepared for the fact that the people, given the choice of such a candidate, would actually vote for him in large numbers.
But they did. To the man and woman in the street, who had suffered rapid economic decline, international ostracism, and severe limits on political freedom, Vojislav Kostunica represented a viable candidate as the anti-Milosevic-someone who offered the country the prospect of democratic change and the possibility to become a normal, European country on a par with Serbia’s neighbors. On September 24, Kostunica received about 54 percent of the vote, with Milosevic getting only about a third. Shocked by his massive defeat at the hand of the Serbian people (neither Kosovars nor Montenegrins opposed to the regime participated in the election), Milosevic first tried to declare himself the winner, then announced that he had received more votes than Kostunica, though not enough to avoid a second-round run-off, then proclaimed that Kostunica had received 10 percent more votes than he had (though just shy of the 50 percent necessary to avoid a run-off), and finally annulled the election altogether.
This final decision by the Milosevic-controlled constitutional court proved to be too much. The people rallied in the Belgrade streets, took over the parliament and media outlets and confronted the regime and its supporters with the unpalatable choice of using violence to suppress the popular will or accepting defeat. One-by-one, Milosevic’s pillars of powers crumbled, with the police, security forces, and the army deciding to join the opposition or just stand by as the drama unfolded. Within 24 hours, Milosevic accepted the people’s verdict-and the constitutional court magically ruled the Kostunica had, after all, won the presidency. The revolution was complete.
Milosevic’s ouster from power is only the beginning of a major transition that will takes years, and possibly decades, to complete. Among the most immediate challenges for Kostunica and those who took control, three stand out.
The first and most important challenge Kostunica and his supporters face is to consolidate their power. The immediate need is to weed out the forces of corruption as well as the Milosevic loyalists that remain throughout the structures of power. Elections have been called for the Yugoslav and Serb parliaments, giving the opposition a chance to take control of these institutions. But winning elections is not enough, given the entrenched nature of the Milosevic regime throughout the structures of power in present-day Serbia. Supporters of the old regime within the governing bureaucracies, the security forces (including police and army), and the industrial behemoths that control much of the local economy must be rapidly removed from their positions of influence. That will not prove easy, in part because it will be difficult to identify people to be removed and in part because the new guard may not have the personnel and expertise necessary to fill the gaps.
The second major challenge will be to use the power that has been consolidated to begin the very difficult economic and political transitions necessary to join the European mainstream. In this, Serbia joins the rest of Eastern Europe—but 11 years late. Also, last year’s NATO bombing campaign against Serbia has left key infrastructure devastated. Simply repairing what was destroyed may cost upwards of $4 billion. But that represents just the first step. In addition, Yugoslavia has suffered from 50 years of communist and crypto-communist economic policy, all of which must be reversed. State-run enterprises will have to be privatized, and many factories, lacking competitiveness, will have to close. We know from the experience in the rest of Eastern Europe that these transitions will have a devastating impact on the population, which, as a result, may provide fertile ground for the re-emergence of nationalistic and authoritarian movements. So it is all the more important that the European countries, the United States, and international financial institutions provide the economic assistance necessary to help the new Yugoslavia through these difficult times.
The final challenge concerns Yugoslavia’s need to resolve its constitutional issues, particularly those involving Montenegro (Serbia’s sister republic in the federation) and Kosovo (a previously autonomous Serbian province that is now an international protectorate). Over the past two years, a young, energetic, and democratic regime in Montenegro has moved away from Milosevic’s crushing embrace and even entertained the possibility of declaring independence. It will be important for the new Yugoslav president to work with the Montenegrin government so as to address the latter’s grievances and redefine the Montenegrin-Serb relationship in a way that provides it a greater degree of control over its own affairs.
Kosovo will prove much more difficult. Formally, the area remains an integral part of Yugoslavia, but in reality it has become an international protectorate populated largely by ethnic Albanians who are united in their desire for independence. The international community, including the U.S., has never supported the Albanian claims, fearing that an independent Kosovo would pose major problems for regional stability. At the same time, the U.S. and its allies have also sought to eliminate any vestige of Serb political control over the region, given the horrendous way in which Milosevic and his henchmen treated the Albanian population, notably during the Kosovo war.
The new regime in Belgrade puts this issue again in play. The Kosovars banked on Milosevic staying in power as the main justification for their demand for independence, yet the new regime eliminates that justification not only in Serb eyes, but those of the international community as well. Some will advocate Kosovo’s participation-perhaps by annexing the northern part of the region to Serbia. But that is likely to be a recipe for future conflict and war. The best that can be hoped for is a political arrangement in which the Kosovars enjoy far-reaching autonomy over their own, internal affairs yet remain formally part of Yugoslavia (perhaps as a third republic in a reconstituted Yugoslav federation).
Although the challenges confronting the new regime in Belgrade are immense and success in any of these areas cannot be guaranteed, it is important to recognize that the events over the past few weeks have fundamentally altered the nature of the Balkans. Gone is the man most responsible for the horrors of “ethnic cleansing”—the raping, pillaging, murder, and expulsions that made the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo so brutal. For now, Milosevic remains in Belgrade, perhaps quietly plotting his return. But he has lost the support of the people, and without that support (or at least their acquiescence) none of the pillars of his power will return to back him—not the army and security forces, not the media, and not the industrialists who financed his (and their) private gains.
The people of Serbia, who for more than a decade stood quietly—and quite incomprehensibly—by as their erstwhile Yugoslav brethren were degraded and dehumanized have nevertheless finally said that enough is enough. They deserve the lion’s share of the credit for throwing out Europe’s last dictator. But western policy created a context within which the uprising could succeed. Had not NATO intervened to end the war in Bosnia and deny Milosevic his evil designs on Kosovo, had not the Europeans and the U.S. insisted on Belgrade’s economic and international isolation, and had not the international community made clear that to be a part of the family of nations certain minimum standards of behavior needed to be upheld, Milosevic would likely still be in power.
That suggests a key lessons for U.S. policy. American engagement—diplomatically, economically, and, yes, militarily—was not some will ‘o the wisp, do-goodie international social work as many have claimed, it was central to achieving the strategic success we have witnessed in recent days. As long as there was conflict in the Balkans, as long as dictators like Milosevic could act with impunity, Europe would remain a source of instability and potential crisis. Now that he has gone, Europe is one giant step closer to being peaceful, undivided, and democratic-a Europe that, far from being a source of danger and concern as it was during the 20th century, is in fact becoming a strong partner of the United States in the 21st century.