Wave Goodbye

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Slobodan milosevic may be the world's worst loser. He withdrew from Croatia and blamed the Croats for starting the war. He lost Bosnia and blamed the Muslims. Kosovo? nato did it. And when early results indicated that he was the loser in last week's presidential elections, he was quite frankly skeptical. After all, during the campaign his official newspaper had called the apparent winner, Vojislav Kostunica, a "moral degenerate" backed by "hyenas" of the West.

His response to the vote was denial, which is the last refuge of a doomed despot. An apparatchik took the podium briefly at ruling party headquarters after the polls closed early last week to announce that Milosevic was actually in the lead. Ministers switched off their cell phones. Government television aired children's cartoons, folk music, old news — anything but the truth.

The unthinkable had happened. It leaked out in bits and pieces, proclaimed by the opposition first and finally acknowledged by the regime itself. Not only had the man who started four Balkan wars lost convincingly, but he had done so in a ballot that his cronies had tried to rig in his favor. One of the last unreconstructed warmongers of the 20th century had met his match, and it was not on the battlefield but at the ballot box. "He's finished," said a veteran Western diplomat. "He just doesn't know it yet."

After absorbing the shock, Milosevic reemerged looking shaken but resolute, frantically pulling the levers of power in a trademark display of Balkan-style miniaturist politics aimed at delaying the inevitable. On the night of a huge demonstration last week, he and the electoral commission he controls announced that Kostunica had scored only 49% of the vote, more than Milosevic's 39% but less than the 55% the opposition claimed — and less than the 50% needed for victory under Yugoslav law. A second round would be required. The opposition scoffed, calling the official tally some kind of "practical joke." Kostunica swore not to participate in the second round, putting the two sides on a collision course. "We'll blockade the whole country if we need to," said opposition alliance campaign manager Zoran Djindjic.

So far, the volleys on both sides have been mostly verbal. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters poured into the streets of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis to proclaim their victory. "Save Serbia and kill yourself, Slobodan!" they shouted, among other choice slogans. Wednesday night, in the dimly lit Square of the Republic in the heart of Belgrade, some 200,000 gathered, waving baby rattles (a reference to a dismissive Serbian saying about being "broken like a baby rattle"). It was Yugoslavia's biggest antigovernment demonstration ever. "This is Serbia, the true Serbia," a jubilant Kostunica told the throng. "We have won despite Milosevic's lies and violence, despite sanctions and last year's nato bombs."

Elsewhere, world leaders and even some local ones joined in the chorus. Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik signed this letter to his fellow Balkan leader: "It is time for you to leave, Slobodan. If there is strength, sense of honor, repentance and shame in you, choose repentance, ask for forgiveness from your nation and go." Foreign Secretary Robin Cook of Britain called Milosevic "a beaten, broken-backed President." Cook later warned that nato had "considerable capacity" in the region, should Milosevic resort to the use of force, a veiled threat which raised eyebrows in nato headquarters in Brussels. In Washington, one official exclaimed: "This is like the Berlin wall coming down, on a Yugoslav scale."

But Milosevic is a long way from being beaten. In the short term, the opposition faces a crucial test over the scheduled second round of elections. If they agree to participate under the assumption that they would likely prevail in another vote, Milosevic will have an extra two weeks to sow dissent or foment a crisis beyond Serbia's borders in Montenegro that would serve as a pretext for annulling the entire process. If, on the other hand, the opposition goes ahead with its promise to boycott, the government gets a last stab at legitimacy. "Milosevic has tossed Kostunica a poisoned apple," said Bratislav Grubacic, editor of the VIP daily news bulletin in Belgrade.

Nor does the Serb leader have to hold on to the presidency to maintain power. His party, thanks in part to a boycott of last week's vote in the independence-leaning republic of Montenegro, achieved a majority in the federal parliament and can therefore dictate who will be the next Prime Minister. By swapping the presidency for the Prime Minister's job, said one diplomat, "Milosevic can make life for Kostunica a nightmare, blocking any move he attempts to make against his interests." Milosevic also retains control of the local government in the republic of Serbia, giving him responsibility for the police and a prominent role in any future federation.

Even so, cracks have begun to appear in Milosevic's defenses. Ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, a key ally in the Serbian government, last week indicated that he was leaving the ruling coalition. In a show of outrage, Seselj declared: "I am horrified by this blatant attempt at fraud." Analysts say Seselj is trying to make up for his own loss in the elections by realigning himself with the rising stars. In Montenegro, Pedrag Bulatovic, deputy leader of the pro-Serb Socialist People's Party, said he had not decided whom to back in the next round of polls. And the Serbian Orthodox Church last week threw its weight behind Kostunica. Far more significantly, credible reports indicate that the rank and file of the Yugoslav military no longer automatically backs Milosevic and voted in substantial numbers for the 18-party opposition alliance led by Kostunica. Army commanders, who last month campaigned openly for Milosevic, publicly declared their neutrality. "The rats are preparing to abandon ship," said a nato adviser in neighboring Kosovo, hopefully.

The challenge now for the opposition will be to capitalize on the wave of popular support and stay united against a formidable foe. Already there were worrying signs at week's end of a slackening in fervor as the number of protesters in Belgrade dropped off. Diplomats say Kostunica, if he is to prevail, will have to find ways quickly to increase his power and control of key institutions, notably the army. "He has to push the envelope," says a diplomat. Opposition leaders say that they are already in low-level discussions with members of the military and Interior Ministry.

Kostunica's progress is being watched closely in Western capitals. Both the U.S. and the European Union have promised to lift economic and diplomatic sanctions if he is confirmed as President. Others have hinted at increased aid and other bilateral arrangements. The aim may be not just to reward Serb voters but also to lure Milosevic's business allies from his side and drive wedges into the Mafia-style web of alliances that make up the old regime. But the key to any future aid, said a diplomat, will be structuring assistance so as to shore up the presidency. "There is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here," he said. "If the West tells itself Kostunica is only a figurehead, and Milosevic is still pulling the strings, then to some extent it will be so."

Western leaders are anxious not to appear too involved. Most Serbs still distrust the U.S. in particular, after last year's nato bombing campaign, and Western endorsements have backfired in the past. "We made a conscious decision not to let ourselves become an issue," said a senior State Department official. Russia is one country whose intervention could make a difference, however. After repeated overtures by everyone from Madeleine Albright to Tony Blair, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin offered late in the week to send his Foreign Minister, Igor Ivanov, to Belgrade to meet with both sides.

Even if Kostunica prevails he will face tremendous challenges. In Kosovo, his longtime nationalism puts him at direct odds with the nato presence there, which he has angrily denounced. Though the province's status is not likely to be first on his agenda, Kosovo Albanian leaders worry that his rise could scotch their dreams of independence. In the capital Pristina, the independent daily Koha Ditore called Kostunica a "man who had his picture taken with Serb paramilitaries in Kosovo holding a Kalashnikov, who supported [Bosnian Serb hard-liner] Radovan Karadzic and who refuses to "collaborate with the international war crimes court in the Hague." Former Kosovo Liberation Army commander Hashim Thaci said that if Kostunica follows through on a campaign promise — echoed by Milosevic — to return Yugoslav security forces to Kosovo, it would "bring another war."

In Serbia itself, 13 years of cronyism and systematic corruption have left health care and other essential social services in disarray while the economy founders. Unemployment tops 50%. First on Kostunica's agenda, once he secures power, will likely be an effort to patch up serious differences with neighboring Montenegro, the only remaining republic in the Yugoslav federation.

Then there is the question of what to do with Milosevic, assuming he can be removed peacefully from power. Kostunica has vowed not to cooperate with prosecutors in the Hague from the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia who want to try Milosevic for war crimes. Nor will Kostunica turn over other indicted suspects, like Radovan Karadzic or General Ratko Mladic, should they turn up on his turf. "Building democracy in Serbia," he has said, "is of higher value than international justice." A domestic Serbian trial for war crimes is still a possibility, he says. Rumors continue to circulate of attempts by Milosevic to cut a deal with a friendly government, in Moscow or elsewhere, to secure his exit and ensure his family's safety. But most analysts say that with a war crimes indictment hanging over his head he would trust another politician only as a last resort. "And then," said a diplomat. "it won't be necessary."

All of which means that last week's historic vote, though momentous, is only a start. To prevail, the opposition has to keep differences to a minimum and remain resolute in the face of one of the most ruthless political strategists of his time. He may be finished, said an analyst, "but we still have to make him see it." The endgame has begun.

With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade, Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Anthee Carassava/Athens