How Slobodan Milosevic Lost His Grip

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Revolutions, as Trotsky noted, are impossible until they become inevitable. That may be one bit of Marxism 101 Slobodan Milosevic didn't quite absorb back in his days as a promising young apparatchik in Tito's Yugoslavia. Then again, the oft-deluded Milosevic was by no means the only one dumbfounded by the speed with he's lost his grip on power.

State TV giddily proclaimed Vojislav Kostunica "president-elect" on Thursday evening after a day-long insurrectional carnival, and by the next morning that appeared to be an uncontested reality. Opposition leaders were making plans to inaugurate their leader Friday, while Milosevic was believed to be holed up in a safe house and negotiating safe passage. In a stunning turnabout, the strongman who ruled Serbia with an iron fist through 13 disastrous years had been turned, in the space of a day, into a fugitive, as the props of his power dissolved with astonishing speed in the face of a classic "people power" showdown. Half a million opposition supporters had called Milosevic's bluff Thursday, taking to the streets of Belgrade and seizing the parliament and state TV buildings, while the security forces for the most part stood by benignly or even joined in. And just like that, the people of Serbia — to the astonishment even of many of their own leaders — literally willed away the Milosevic nightmare.

Faced with an insurrectional challenge, Milosevic's power rested only on the guns of his security forces. And in the end, it appears that they have refused to turn those weapons on the nation they're sworn to protect in order to save a ruler who has brought only shame and ruin to Serbia. And their silent assent may have been the factor that finally allowed Kostunica to finally claim the first-round election victory he won 12 days ago.

The most striking feature of Thursday's insurrection was the speed with which the balance of power shifted. This has happened partly because of tactical mistakes by a despot who may have believed his own propaganda, and partly because each new success by the opposition emboldened a growing proportion of the citizenry to join them on the streets — and to begin to believe that they had the power to change their history through simple acts of defiance. And, of course, the moment Milosevic looked vulnerable, the men who'd kept him in power began stampeding for the exits to make their peace with the opposition.

Even a month ago, few of Milosevic's foes were predicting he'd be forced within a matter of weeks to start browsing the real estate markets of Baghdad and Belarus. The Serb strongman had cockily called early presidential elections, believing that his fragmented opposition and a Montenegrin boycott — plus a dollop of ballot stuffing — would cement his presidency for years to come. That assessment was shared by many opposition activists and Western governments.

The first surprise came when Kostunica, the seemingly marginal opposition leader, appeared to be generating critical mass ahead of the vote despite the presence of another rival fielded by the largest opposition party, Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement. Kostunica's popularity was a message that the Serb electorate was tired of personality battles confounding opposition efforts to get rid of Milosevic, and it signaled that Milosevic would have to rely on Plan B — stealing the election.

Milosevic clearly underestimated the extent of Kostunica's support, because he'd left himself the space to pad votes principally from Kosovo and Montenegro, where local conditions made opposition oversight difficult. When election day arrived, he needed a lot more votes than he could plausibly manufacture in those places, and the official results collected from polling booths inside Serbia showed Kostunica a runaway first-round victor.

Even then, Milosevic still had a number of tactical options. He could cook the results just enough to force a runoff against Kostunica; he could turn opposition charges of electoral fraud against their authors by simply agreeing, and insisting that the election would have to be rerun from scratch; or he could concede the presidency to Kostunica and rely on his parliamentary majority to make himself prime minister and legally tie the president's hands.

Hindsight suggests that Milosevic would probably have been safest with Option 3 — tactical retreat and consolidation. Instead, he began with Option 1, allowing the electoral commission to announce that Kostunica had beaten the strongman by 49 percent to 38 percent, but had failed to get the simple majority required for a first-round victory. That presented the opposition with a quandary — agreeing to a runoff would have meant accepting Milosevic's fraud, but to boycott would allow Milosevic to legally install himself as president. The opposition responded with a general strike, but even earlier this week observers doubted whether the anti-Milosevic forces could muster the requisite strength and organization to stop the second round going ahead. As recently as Tuesday, the prevailing instinct among many opposition activists was to prepare themselves for a long haul.

Perhaps because he expected to force a split among them with threats of violence, Milosevic then made what might be seen as a critical mistake on Wednesday, when his constitutional court responded to opposition cries of ballot fraud by annulling the official results and ordering an entirely new election. That closed all constitutional channels for his opponents to demand their victory, and invited them to either overthrow him on the streets, or learn to live with him. But he might have paid more heed to the clash at the Kolubara mine on Wednesday, where his police, under orders to reopen a crucial coalmine closed by strikers, had backed out of a clash with some 10,000 demonstrators. That signaled both a growing confidence in "people power" and mounting confusion in the security forces, which allowed the opposition the next day to storm the citadel.

Each hour that the opposition controlled the streets of the capital and broadcast its messages via national television was another nail in Milosevic's political coffin. His security forces conspicuously stood back and allowed Kostunica to build a power center, and by midnight it was clear that the power equation had shifted — even Milosevic's official news agency, Tanjug, had begun referring to Kostunica as "the elected president."

By simply occupying the streets and standing their ground, the opposition cracked the edifice of the Milosevic's power — as soon the locus of power in Belgrade was thrown into doubt, his key political, business and military allies began deserting in droves, and it was over within days. For, as Gabriel Byrne's character told Tom Finney's in "Miller's Crossing," "You only run this town because people think you run this town."