after 77 straight days of street demonstrations and political unrest, opponents of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic have won. Or have they?
Milosevic announced Tuesday that he would call on Serbia's parliament to pass emergency legislation recognizing opposition election victories in the capital of Belgrade and other Yugoslav cities. His refusal to accept the November election results aroused international as well as local protests that had begun to undermine his regime.
Despite the cheering in the streets, opposition leaders have reacted cautiously, saying they would continue the demonstrations until those responsible for the violent police crackdown earlier this week are punished and until the media are freed from state control. U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the Clinton administration was waiting to see if opposition politicians actually took their places on the city councils and if the councils themselves retained their powers.
Is Milosevic playing another trick? Is he playing for time or has he suddenly got democratic religion? Either way, has his time run out? Salon talked with Warren Zimmerman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1989 to 1992 and is author of the recently published "Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and its Destroyers" (Times Books). Zimmerman is now a professor of diplomacy at Columbia University.
Some see Milosevic's move as a capitulation. Others see it as a smart way of drawing the opposition's sting. What do you think?
I think it simply confirms the overall trend -- that he's on the way down and out.
Milosevic is nothing if not a survivor. Could this concession, however late, put off the inevitable?
In the near term, it may. But in the long term, it's yet another cut into his power base. He's already losing support in the army; a number of officers have been out on the streets with the demonstrators, including a member of the general staff. A month or so ago, the military high command issued a statement, which people believe to be authentic, saying they would not take action against the demonstrators. Also, he's lost support in the church; that's critical because of the church's influence on the rural people -- who are Milosevic's major supporters. Now, he's got local governments, including Belgrade, which are not going to be subject to his demands any longer. Belgrade in particular will become a focal point of opposition to him. So he may have bought himself a little time, but he can't stop the trend in the long run.
The police didn't seem to crack heads of the demonstrators the other day.
Yes, the police are much more loyal to him. After all, he created this massive police force and, most importantly, he pays them. The government unions also have remained loyal. So he's got some things on his side. But he's lost something that total rulers really need, which is the appearance of total invincibility. I think people now see that they can hurt him and maybe even kill him politically.
Is that why the opposition is saying this concession does not go far enough and that they now want accountability for the violence over the past few days?
I think that it shows that the opposition knows this fight is not just about getting the people who won elections into their seats. It's about who is going to run Serbia, and I think they're smart to stay on the streets.
So are we seeing some sort of endgame being played out here?
It could last months, but yes, I think it is an endgame.
There has been speculation that Milosevic might use the concession to argue that he has taken heed of the international criticism and to press for badly needed foreign loans. Could that work?
He wasn't going to get the loans before these elections, so why would he get them now? While the basic sanctions against Serbia came off at the time of Dayton, there has remained something called the "outer wall" of sanctions, which is essentially designed to keep Serbia as a pariah state, keep it out of the U.N., keep it out of international organizations and keep the international lending organizations from dealing with Serbia. It's very strong and will stay on as long as Milosevic is in power. For this outer wall to be erased, there would have to be much more serious democratic action from him than what he did yesterday.
The U.S. says it wants to be sure that the victorious opposition actually take their seats and that Milosevic doesn't take steps that strip these local councils of their power. Is that a valid concern?
Absolutely. Milosevic operates in an environment where he makes the laws or has his own people make the laws. So it's entirely possible that his next line of defense will be to try to make sure that the people coming into power can't do anything substantial. It's typical of Milosevic to try to nickel-and-dime every new concession he makes, to cut back these concessions with salami tactics.
Is there still a potential for violence in Serbia?
I think there is a major potential for violence, particularly if Milosevic sees that his own rule is threatened. Then he would be prepared, I believe, to use whatever violence it takes. And the obvious place where he would look would be Kosovo. It's the issue with which he's most identified; it's the issue on which he's made no concessions at all. It's the issue which unified Serbs and brought him to power nine years ago, and it's still very volatile. And it's diversionary.
In Kosovo, the Serbian minority essentially runs the show while the majority Albanians have set up their own parallel, extra-legal institutions. It's really a classic colonial situation. What he could do is provoke an incident that could result in the killing of maybe several Serb policemen, something big enough to escalate into serious communal violence. Then he would call on the Serbian people to rally around while he got the army and the police to put down this Albanian "terrorism." He's already talked about Albanian terrorism in the past week. The press recently ran a picture of him congratulating his security officials for their actions against Albanian terrorism. So he seems to be setting the stage for some kind of diversion in Kosovo.
How would the U.S. react to that? Haven't we drawn our own line in the sand there?
That's right. If Kosovo goes up in flames, that is very big stuff. At the beginning of his administration, Clinton wrote Milosevic a very sharp letter, in which he said that if Milosevic tried anything in Kosovo, there would be a forceful reaction from the United States which would not necessarily be limited to Kosovo itself. In other words, it could extend into Serbia proper. It was a repeat of a letter than Bush had written to Milosevic and it is a much stronger commitment than we ever made in Bosnia. And you've got tremendous congressional interest in Kosovo as well. During the Bush administration there were innumerable non-binding resolutions arguing for Albanian civil rights in Kosovo. So if people got killed there on a large scale, I think you'll see a tremendous reaction on the Hill.
Is this a U.S. foreign policy crisis in the making?
It very well could be. But that's assuming that Milosevic can get away with it. It's not clear that he could get the Serbian army and police to go along with what might seem to them purely an effort to keep himself in power. In using violence, he always has to worry whether he's going so far that he may get a reaction from the people that are powerful enough to overthrow him.