Vojislav Kostunica: A Modest Giant-Killer

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Vojislav Kostunica is a humble, scholarly man, almost entirely lacking in the charisma and bombast of other Serbian opposition leaders. But that seems to have been just fine with Yugoslav voters last Sunday, who appear to have given the 56-year-old former law professor a stunning first-round victory over Slobodan Milosevic (even if Milosevic remains in denial). He may be less charismatic than his rival oppositionists, but unlike them Kostunica has never had any dealings with Milosevic's government or with the Western countries widely disdained, if not despised, in Serbia since last year's NATO bombing campaign. He's a straight arrow with simple tastes — he drives a battered old Yugo — untainted by ties with the mafias that have prospered in the Milosevic era. His campaign traded, more than anything else, on his honesty. "Who can look you straight in the eye? Kostunica," says one of his key campaign slogans.

But given that much of the West's battle with Slobodan Milosevic over the past decade has been over Serbia's violent relations with its neighbors in the former Yugoslavia, some of Kostunica's honesty may not be entirely comforting to NATO leaders. There's no doubting his credentials as a democrat — during his academic career he once translated "The Federalist Papers," and was one of the earliest public advocates of multiparty democracy in communist Yugoslavia — or his firm commitment to liberal economics. Moreover, he's firmly committed to integrating a post-Milosevic Serbia into the European Union. But Kostunica has always been a staunch Serb nationalist and has consistently criticized Yugoslavian leaders for compromising the rights of the Serb minorities in the neighboring republics.

Kostunica was fired from his teaching job at the University of Belgrade in 1974 after publicly criticizing Tito's decision to give greater constitutional autonomy to Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Kosovo on the grounds that this undermined the position of the Serb minorities in those territories.

Ironically, that was the same issue on which Milosevic himself rode to power, revoking Kosovo's autonomy in 1989 and fomenting rebellion by nationalist Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia. But Milosevic also ushered in multiparty politics, and Kostunica helped found the Democratic party, from which he broke in 1992 because it was insufficiently nationalist. He created the Democratic Party of Serbia, which, after a brief alliance with the conservative Serbian Renewal Movement of the mercurial Vuk Draskovic, found itself playing a marginal role in Serbia's parliament until 1997.

He was most noted in this era for denouncing Milosevic's acceptance of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords, but mostly stayed out of the 1996-97 showdown on the streets between Milosevic and an opposition alliance headed by Draskovic.

But the fractious personality squabbles that looked set to hobble the opposition when Milosevic declared a surprise election in the summer gave Kostunica an opportunity. With many of its better-known leaders compromised by their conspicuous personality clashes or ties with either the regime or the West, the opposition alliance — an ideological patchwork whose components range from monarchists to monetarists — settled on Kostunica as the man most likely to beat Milosevic, particularly after the latter's defeat in Kosovo, a defeat with which Kostunica has berated Milosevic throughout the campaign.

While he's been signaling his intention to take a democratic Serbia into Europe, Kostunica has been harshly critical of NATO (which includes the bulk of E.U. members). He slammed Washington's decision earlier this year to establish an office in Hungary to assist the opposition as interference in Serbia's affairs, and has no plans to extradite Milosevic for trial in the Hague.

But if Kostunica isn't exactly NATO's dream candidate, Still, Kostunica's commitment to democracy and to a European Serbia give the Western alliance plenty of grounds for confidence that it could find political solutions to any disagreements with the chosen leader of the Serbs. That's if Milosevic allows him into power.