He is rumpled and retiring and most at ease in his modest Belgrade apartment, surrounded by law books and cats. But Vojislav Kostunica has learned to play tough. During the campaign for the Yugoslav presidency, the 56-year-old legal scholar traveled without bodyguards. When he stumped in Kosovo last month, supporters of Slobodan Milosevic pelted him with rotten vegetables, bottles and stones, opening a gash under his eye; Kostunica carried on with his speech, refusing protection from nato soldiers standing nearby. When the Milosevic campaign ran advertisements describing him as a "moral degenerate," Kostunica barely shrugged. "Politically, I have a pretty strong stomach," he said.
KostunicaÕs surprising steeliness has helped him stare down Milosevic, but it doesnÕt endear him to the West. Despite his passive, hang dog demeanor, Kostunica is an unapologetic Serb nationalist: he posed for a photograph in 1998 brandishing an assault rifle to show solidarity for Serb troops in Kosovo. During the campaign, his disdain for Milosevic was matched only by his contempt for the United States: one slogan urged voters to say "no to White Palace" — Milosevic's suburban mansion — and "no to the White House." He refused to support the 1995 Dayton accords, claiming they were unfair to Bosnian Serbs, and he lambasted the NATO campaign in Kosovo, while at the same time blasting Milosevic for his handling of the Kosovo crisis.
Kostunica has shown no sign that he would cooperate with demands that Serbian war criminals, including Milosevic, be delivered to the Hague; he believes the U.N. tribunal is a tool for American meddling.
And yet Kostunica still represents a refreshing turn in Serbian politics. He has none of the bombast of other Serb opposition leaders: he drives a battered Yugo and rarely travels outside the country. Kostunica was a reluctant candidate, agreeing to stand for election only after polls showed more recognizable figures, such as Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, stood no chance of beating Milosevic. Kostunica appealed to voters with his common touch — he campaigned door-to-door in five cities a day — but also because he is unsullied by association with Milosevic, the West or the former communist regime. Since the 1970s, when he was fired from his teaching post at Belgrade University, Kostunica has been one of the country's most ardent advocates of democracy and liberal economics. That makes him palatable to the West, particularly given the alternative. "He is not an indicted war criminal," says a veteran U.S. diplomat. "He's not somebody who has started four or five wars. He is not a corrupt person. There is no comparison."
As President, Kostunica would likely blunt his anti-Western campaign rhetoric in an effort to improve ties with the E.U. and secure the lifting of international sanctions. And he has said that he would begin negotiations with Montenegro's President Milo Djukanovic about the future of the Yugoslav federation, talks that could result in a new constitution and eventual independence for Montenegro. But he will also demand greater rights for Serbs in Kosovo and will not entertain the idea of Kosovar independence without major concessions from the West. That may be the price of democracy. "The West has to realize," says former British Foreign Secretary David Owen, "that you can't have peace in the Balkans without a Serb government that speaks for the Serbs." If nothing else, Kostunica seems determined to do just that.
With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/ Belgrade and Andrew Purvis/Budapest