The survivor

The reason nothing seems to work in getting rid of Slobodan Milosevic is that the entire post-communist Serbian system remains geared toward authoritarian abuse.

Published November 5, 1999 9:00AM (EST)

Five months after Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic yielded to 78 days of NATO bombing and withdrew his forces from Kosovo, Serbian public outrage against Milosevic for losing Kosovo and for turning the world against Serbia has dissipated: anti-Milosevic street protests have fizzled, the political opposition remains weak and divided, and Milosevic remains firmly in control. Winter is fast approaching, bombed power stations are in need of repair, the economy is in tatters, and the Serbian public is frightened of a dark, cold winter made unbearable by power and food shortages.

As Serbs' preoccupation with hardship mounts and anti-government street protests dwindles, the leaders of Serbia's democratic opposition have urged Washington to lift sanctions against the towns they control as a way to boost their popularity with the Serbian public. Washington's European allies have also grown uncomfortable at the prospect of an increasingly impoverished Weimar-esque Serbia.

All of these factors contributed to a decision announced Wednesday by the State Department to agree to a European plan to deliver humanitarian shipments of heating fuel to two Serbian towns controlled by the opposition. In addition, Washington went further, promising to lift an oil embargo and flight ban on Serbia should Milosevic submit to internationally supervised free and fair elections, even if he wins those elections -- a possibility Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said was remote.

"I find it really, really, really hard to believe that Milosevic might win a free and fair election," Albright said Wednesday, after meeting with a delegation of Serbian opposition politicians who are on a visit to Washington. "I expect the people of Serbia -- who have suffered under the boot of Slobodan Milosevic -- will choose correctly."

While the offer to lift sanctions should Milosevic hold elections seemed to signal a major policy reversal and was welcomed by Serbian opposition politicians, Balkans analysts suggest that its potential impact is more symbolic than substantive, and instead reflects a deepening pessimism shared by Western governments and Serbia's anti-government opposition over whether Milosevic can be gotten rid of any time soon.

"The State Department is smoking dope," said one former U.S. diplomat who asked not to be named. "Milosevic is no fool. He's not going to hold elections he can't win."

The former diplomat predicted Milosevic would agree to something far less than free and fair, internationally supervised Serbian parliamentary elections, in which a coalition of opposition parties might be able to win a majority over Milosevic's ruling coalition. Instead, he suggested, Milosevic would possibly agree to hold municipal elections whose outcome he could better control and would be less decisive, and in fact which could risk the opposition losing control of several of the towns it currently rules.

"The opposition is going to be presented with a proposal for municipal elections, which the opposition can either decide not to participate in, in which case they would lose. Or half the opposition parties will agree to participate, in which case Vuk Draskovic's party would win some municipalities. Or the opposition will agree to the elections, and Milosevic will cheat," the former diplomat suggested.

"It really doesn't make much difference, because the opposition is never going to oust Milosevic," said Balkans expert Chris Bennett, co-founder of the Berlin-based think-tank ESI, European Stability Initiative. "Elections don't change anything in this society."

Bennett suggested Serbia's problem is not so much Milosevic as the entire system inherited from the former communists.

"In Serbia, the communist structure has never been overthrown. You have a system of dependence on authority. If you step out of line, you lose not just your job, but your home. It's an especially insidious system," he said.

Many analysts say that no matter who is in charge, that system will continue to lend itself to abuse and authoritarianism.

"The opposition doesn't run their municipalities any better," Bennett explained. Opposition party leaders "Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic use and abuse the same system in the towns they control. They've gotten rich too."

The official confusion over the usefulness of sanctions as a form of behavior modification over Belgrade is reflected in the changing U.S. policy. For years, Washington has played the role of church lady among its allies, championing economic sanctions against Serbia as a way to punish and discourage Milosevic from terrorizing Serbia's ethnic minorities, even though the sanctions seemed to be hurting the wrong people.

The sanctions have damaged the Serbian economy, but they have also impoverished Serbia's middle class, the group most likely to support a change in leadership and most sensitive to Serbia's status as international pariah. Over the past decade, sanctions have contributed to some 500,000 of Serbia's best-educated young people fleeing the country for better lives abroad, and to avoid getting drafted to fight in Milosevic's wars.

This has left Serbia's democratic opposition with a relatively weak, demoralized and impoverished base of support. Meantime over the past decade of his rule, Milosevic has strategically placed his cronies and loyalists at the helm of state enterprises, allowing him to sell off state assets when he needs money to pay pensioners and the police who allow him to maintain a firm grip on power.

In the weeks following the end of NATO bombing and Milosevic's loss of Kosovo, it seemed the Serbian public might oust Milosevic through a street revolution: unpaid army reservists demoralized by the loss of Kosovo and enraged upon returning to find their families suffering economically; Serbs in towns formerly loyal to Milosevic furious that they suffered the bombing and lost Kosovo all the same; Kosovo Serbs forced to flee the province after the return of almost a million Kosovo Albanians brutally expelled by Serbian forces; and the anti-Milosevic democratic opposition, all came out onto the streets, barricaded roads, and denounced the leader who had caused them years of suffering. By August, the anti-Milosevic demonstrations were at their peak, and it seemed that Milosevic's days might be numbered.

The early post-war signs of growing anti-Milosevic sentiment among the Serbian public persuaded Washington and Brussels to maintain the war-time oil embargo, flight ban and ban on reconstruction assistance, as the sanctions seemed to be contributing to Serbs' pressure on Milosevic to go.

But in the five months since the Kosovo war ended, public outrage against Milosevic has dimmed into resignation. Unable to draw more than a few thousand people to its street protests, the democratic Alliance for Change opposition coalition modified its ambitions for a dramatic street revolution, and joined with Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Party to ask Milosevic for early elections instead.

"Obviously, the opposition in Serbia is in deep trouble," said James Lyon, director of the Sarajevo office of the International Crisis Group, an advocacy group and think tank. "They are falling apart. They are calling for street demonstrations and nobody is showing up."

Explaining why the opposition may have been able to persuade Washington to change its Serbia sanctions policy, Lyon added, "Milosevic has pretty successfully labeled the Serbian opposition as traitors and Western stooges. This is a way for the opposition to show they are interested in the well-being of Serbia. I suspect the opposition may have been able to sell Washington on the idea, by saying, 'Look, we were in bed with you during the NATO bombing and now we are getting painted as traitors. Now you have to get us out of it. Send us fuel oil. And then we can stand up and say we are for the people.'"

"It makes sense to give the opposition whatever leg up we can," agreed Kurt Bassuener, of the Washington based advocacy group, Balkan Action Council. "It shows the Serbian people the West is not against them, but is against the continuation of the regime."

Dragoslav Avramovic, one of the leader's of the Serbian opposition coalition Alliance for Change who is currently in Washington, agrees.

"The sanctions have penalized very poor people in Serbia for a long time. They deserve the lifting of sanctions," said Avramovic, a former Serbian Central Bank chief well respected among Serbs for having helped reverse skyrocketing inflation during the Bosnian war. "Washington changed. I think it is a very favorable change. How can you be against supplying heating oil to poor people?"

Ironically, as the Serbian opposition becomes more unified in its demand for early elections as a way to oust Milosevic, and has gotten Washington to back up the demand with the offer to lift sanctions if free elections are held, experts on the former Yugoslavia express growing conviction that the only way to get rid of Milosevic is through revolution, followed by a structural reform of the political system.

"Look at Bosnia," said Balkans expert Chris Bennett. "The West has spent $10 billion a year there for the past four years, deployed 60,000 NATO troops, and has a whole list of NGOs working there. And we have still not succeeded in ousting these bastards. There is no way to penetrate the system" legally, he said. "Even were Milosevic ousted in a bloody coup, he who controls the nomenclatura system will take over."

Bennett suggests that could be extreme nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj, whose Serbian Radical Party is in a coalition government with Milosevic. According to Bennett, Seselj has been strategically placing Radical party officials in charge of key Serbian government posts that have the power to select who controls different agencies.

Bennett paints a dark picture of a kind of Serbian "Groundhog Day," where the state structure itself breeds corruption and entrenched authoritarianism -- leaders who resemble Milosevic -- rather than a Serbia which will be transformed into a free thinking democracy once Milosevic is removed.

The former U.S. diplomat who said Milosevic would never agree to elections he can't win has reached a similar conclusion. "The opposition is taking an enormous risk by asking for elections. I think they should back off the elections gig for now, and try to get people back onto the streets."

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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