Milosevic May Not Relinquish Hold So Readily

San Jose Mercury News
October 1, 2000

The dictator is reeling. After mesmerizing and manipulating his country for more than a decade, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is suddenly a wounded tyrant who could be toppled by one more blow from an opposition that is, for once, united and strong.

The beginning of the end for Milosevic–if that’s what it turns out to be–got under way last Sunday, when he was trounced in elections he was sure he would win. Even by his own count, he came up short. According to the official tally–a fabrication, most likely–Milosevic won 38 percent of the vote, while the main opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, gained 48 percent. Those numbers, if true, would force a second round of voting Oct. 8 because neither candidate won an absolute majority.

The opposition will have none of that. According to its count–an accurate one, most likely–Kostunica won 52 percent of the vote, which gives him an outright victory. He is calling for Milosevic to step down. And that is why hundreds of thousands of Serbs are hollering “He’s finished!” in the streets of Belgrade, exulting in what they hope will be the political demise of a dictator whose stoking of nationalist passions sparked four wars in the past 10 years–in Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-1992), Bosnia (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1999).

Even so, if Milosevic, who caused the greatest wave of bloodshed in Europe since World War II, is heading for a long-awaited fall, the opposition will almost surely need to strike at him again.

Slobo (his nickname) is unlikely to forfeit office voluntarily, and his cronies and generals are unlikely to oust him until they are sure his cause is a lost one. But delivering a final blow is a task the opposition has failed to accomplish at several turning points in the last decade. And although its prospects have never been better, little is guaranteed when you are dealing with Milosevic, whose dark personal history includes the deaths, by suicide, of his mother and father.

He is ruthless. The wars he started killed several hundred thousand people, many of them civilians murdered in campaigns of terror that refreshed the Western world’s acquaintance with the old and miserable phrase “ethnic cleansing.” And he is brilliant.

In the past, Milosevic has gotten the better of the opposition by capitalizing on its disarray and his cleverness. The former is gone now, but not the latter. Although the Clinton administration prefers to equate Milosevic with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, who uses terror as much as wiliness to stay in power, the truth is that Milosevic is the Machiavelli of the Balkans.He uses the minimum amount of domestic force necessary to stay in power; outsmarting his opponents, rather than killing them, is his preferred modus operandi. You can count on your two hands the number of opposition activists who have been killed by Milosevic’s regime in the past decade.

When faced with surges in opposition activity, Milosevic often bides his time, letting protesters march–every night, if they wish, even for months–until they are too cold or tired or dispirited to continue. Occasionally he uses force–not enough to outrage the majority of citizens who prefer to stay on the sidelines, but enough to prevent the accumulation of a critical mass in the streets. At times he even gives in a little, offering a few crumbs of compromise that sate his opponents but leave him in power. It has been part of his genius that he knew the opposition’s needs and limits better than its own leaders did.

He has survived much of the world’s condemnation. He has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for atrocities committed by his military forces in Kosovo, but remains free. And he survived the devastation of last year’s NATO bombing campaign, although it forced him to withdraw his armed forces from Kosovo and effectively cede control of the province to the United Nations. Yugoslavia, which consisted of six republics before its breakup began a decade ago, consists of only two republics now, Serbia and Montenegro–and Montenegro is pushing for independence too.

The underlying goal of the NATO campaign was to unseat Milosevic, whom the Clinton administration and its European allies view as the prime destabilizing force in the Balkans, which has seen little but war since he came to power. The United States and its European allies remain committed to that goal; in the past year, the U.S. government alone channeled $25 million to Yugoslavia’s independent media and opposition groups. And several European leaders last week spoke in support of the opposition, while Clinton urged Milosevic to accept the will of the people and step down.

Still, at the moment, there is little the outside world can do but hope the opposition plays its strong hand well.

Certainly the opposition is better led than before. One of the reasons the opposition failed to gather much more than 100,000 people into the streets on any given occasion in the past was because its leadership had been divided between two men, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, who hated each other more than they hated Milosevic. They crossed and double-crossed each other so much that they became, in essence, an asset to Milosevic.

Draskovic, an erratic firebrand and occasional nationalist, even cooperated with Milosevic at times, briefly becoming a minister in his government last year. He accused Djindjic of being a coward for fleeing to Montenegro during the NATO bombing campaign (Djindjic claimed Milosevic’s goons were plotting to kill him), but now Draskovic has retreated to Montenegro after two apparent assassination attempts against him. Djindjic is back in Belgrade, and was the campaign manager for Kostunica’s campaign.

Kostunica is a former law professor and minor politician who was virtually unknown until a few months ago. His lack of high-profile experience is regarded as a plus because he has not sullied himself with the sort of backstage intrigues that have hobbled other opposition leaders.

For once, the anti-Milosevic forces are united behind a man who puts his country’s interests ahead of his party’s. That is one reason why more than 200,000 people took to the streets on Wednesday night in the first major post-election gathering; that was nearly twice as many people as Draskovic or Djindjic ever managed to attract.

But what do those people and their strong new leader do next?

In 1996, when Milosevic’s ruling Socialist Party lost control of key cities in municipal elections but refused to honor the results, demonstrators took to the streets and stayed there for months, marching peacefully every night. Milosevic eventually gave in, partly, but he did everything he could to reduce the power and funding of the municipal councils, and he waited for the shaky opposition alliance to fall apart, which it did. He played his weak hand well, and as a result, his hold on the country was hardly affected.

And last year, after NATO’s bombing campaign shredded much of Serbia’s infrastructure, the opposition tried to mount a popular campaign against Milosevic. The protest marches, which demanded early elections and occurred nightly for several months, had a negligible impact. They drew fewer and fewer people, finally coming to a rather whimpering halt.

So it is not assured that marches, even when they’re 200,000-people strong, or the general strike the opposition has called for, will be sufficient to dislodge Milosevic. One of the strange ironies of Serbian politics is that although Serbs have been involved in four wars since 1990, they have been reluctant to shed any blood to dislodge the man who led them into these disastrous campaigns. Not all Serbs think the wars were ill-advised, but most realize Milosevic has led them into political and economic oblivion.

Wednesday night, Kostunica and other opposition figures reiterated their commendable intention to lead a peaceful movement to oust Milosevic. This is not just for the sake of principle. It’s practical, as well; too much provocation could unleash a rather nasty campaign of violence by Milosevic’s desperate regime. Too little, of course, could leave him in power.

And that’s the conundrum the opposition faces today, the same one it did a decade ago: Can a man of violence be defeated without violence?

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.