The long road back for Yugoslavia

With the revolutionary fervor subsiding, new President Vojislav Kostunica must now figure out how to govern a country where Slobodan Milosevic is still a political force.


Laura Rozen
October 9, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

Lingering just beneath the surface euphoria of Belgrade in the wake of the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, a distinct uneasiness prevails. Though its nature is not easy for people here to explain, a visceral sense of nervousness, uncertainty and unspent anger flickers here, in part fueled by Milosevic's vow to remain on the scene as the leader of his political party.

"Milosevic can't stay here," Marija Djukic, a video producer, said Saturday while sitting at a downtown cafe, hungover from the previous two nights' massive, ecstatic celebrations. "He and his family must leave Serbia, for somewhere. We can't live with them here."

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"I have very mixed feelings," Petar Janjatovic, a Belgrade rock critic and independent broadcaster said Sunday. The opposition "should have thrown a lot of people in jail the first night [after Milosevic stepped down]. The worst collaborators with this regime, including some of the top presenters from Radio TV Serbia, should be thrown out. But I guess the opposition was busy these first nights worrying about the police and army."

"Don't be too happy yet," cautioned dark-bearded independent Serbian journalist Zoran Nikolic on Saturday evening, as journalists waited in the dim foyer of Belgrade's glass and steel Sava Center for the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, to be inaugurated. "It's not all settled yet. Somehow his people are still strong," he said, referring to Milosevic's associates.

Indeed, the scene at Sava Center Saturday night at times more resembled a Mafia turf war than a political event. A long line of dark Mercedes and Audis were parked outside, with gangs of thuggish, armed, leather-jacketed men, each loyal to a different political leader, who just days ago were preparing to face off in a near civil war, stared each other down as they lurked in the hallways outside the Parliament assembly.

The decisiveness of Kostunica's victory over Milosevic at the presidential polls is clouded by the fact that Milosevic's party scored a significant number of seats in the simultaneous parliamentary elections. Further restricting Kostunica's ability to establish a solid new democratic government is the fact that Montenegro's Socialist People's Party (SNP), which until days ago was loyal to Milosevic, now has the decisive swing vote in the parliament. The SNP is now being fiercely wooed by both Milosevic's Socialist parliamentarians, and Kostunica's opposition MPs.

The Yugoslav Parliament consists of two chambers, with a total of 178 seats. Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and his wife's Yugoslav United Left together won 51 seats (44 seats in the lower house, the House of Peoples and 7 seats in the upper house, the Chamber of Republics); Kostunica's Democratic Opposition of Serbia has 69 seats (59 seats in the lower house and 10 seats in the upper house); while the Montenegrin SNP holds 47 seats (28 seats in the lower house and 19 seats in the upper house).

So while Serbia is convulsed with a sense of triumph at getting rid of Milosevic, Serbs still have to swallow the frustrating, retrograde situation of watching Kostunica coexist in a parliament still stacked with Milosevic cronies and proxies. It all fuels a nagging sense that Milosevic still has some tricks up his sleeve, and remains a hostile potential threat who -- through his proxies and loyalists in the Yugoslav and Serbian governments -- could very easily attempt to sabotage Serbia's attempted return to normalcy and democracy.

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Indeed, opposition leaders say as late as Friday night Milosevic made a failed attempt to retake Radio Television Serbia, seized by opposition supporters a day earlier. After his attempt failed, he later appeared in a pre-taped television speech to the nation, in which he said that he conceded Kostunica's victory, and that he planned to take a short break to spend time with his grandchild, before resuming political life as the leader of Serbia's now-opposition Socialist party. His televised speech came hours after his hated son, Marko Milosevic, fled with his wife to Moscow under assumed names. A day earlier, anti-government demonstrators trashed "Scandal," a downtown Belgrade perfume store owned by Marko. Milosevic's son, who has been one of Serbia's largest, most ruthless and violent drug, cigarette and fuel smugglers, is a widely despised figure here. The looters, not content to just trash the store, went so far as to pull electric wires from its walls. They left graffitti that said "Complain to Daddy."

It is that kind of popular rage and anger which Kostunica must somehow manage and control. And he must do it at a moment when Serbia and Yugoslavia have a real crisis of governing authority.

Only days after he was involved in a historic struggle to inspire the conservative Serbian population to engage in an uprising to overthrow Milosevic, the new president now is faced with the delicate chalenge of carefully lowering people's massive expectations for positive transformation, quick changes and prosperity. At the same time, Kostunica, whose attraction as a candidate was partly based on his credentials as a man of integrity who never once met with Milosevic, now has to form a government that is stacked with Milosevic's associates.

But Kostunica enjoyed an international vote of confidence Sunday in the world currency markets. The Yugoslav dinar, which traded at 38 Deutsche marks Saturday, rose to a rate of 22 Deutsche marks on the streets of Belgrade Sunday.

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Kostunica's balancing act is further complicated by the tension that exists between Yugoslavia's two republics: the larger Serbia, and the smaller Montenegro. Montenegro's pro-Western, pro-independence president, Milo Djukanovic, boycotted the polls that brought Kostunica to power. He now has to watch as his local enemies, the pro-Belgrade Montenegran political party the SNP, enter into a coalition government with Kostunica's pro-democracy MPs. Kostunica's inauguration speech to delegates Saturday night reflected the fragility of the government he is trying to hold together.

Indeed, opposition activists voice a fear not only of Milosevic's dangerous persistent behind-the-scenes influence, but of one outcome they fear could be worse: a total collapse of authority here. At times, Belgrade seems to teeter close to the edge of anarchy. This is a city and country full of people who have participated in ugly wars, listened to hysterical hate speech and propaganda for the past decade on state TV, and who last week were brought to the edge of a potential civil conflict. The anti-Milosevic strikes and demonstrations that helped loosen Milosevic's grip on power last week were accompanied by scenes of widespread looting and destruction. The Parliament where Kostunica was to be sworn in Saturday night was so burned and looted by angry citizens that the ceremony had to be moved to the Sava Center.

"You just don't understand," Zarco Korac, a psychology professor and leader of one of the 18 opposition parties united behind Kostunica, said Saturday night at the Sava Center. "This is not a transition: It is an absolute revolution, it is a collapse."

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Korac warned that not only the Yugoslav government was barely functioning, but that its larger republic, Serbia, would likely see its government dissolve on Monday. The Serbian Renewal Party, a Vuk Draskovic-led opposition party that refused to back Kostunica at the September 24 polls, has vowed to call for the dissolution of the Serbian parliament. Korac said Serbia could expect new Serbian parliament elections to be held in 45 days.

In the meantime, government ministries are barely functioning. "They are empty," Korac said. "No one is in charge."

Hundreds of foreign journalists have of late entered the country without visas, as the foreign ministry seemed to be on life support the past week. And while the country's police force largely restrained itself from attacking anti-government demonstrations last week, its head, Vlajko Stojiljkovic, a close Milosevic ally, remains the nominal head until the Yugoslav government can name a new Minister of Interior. Stojiljkovic was, along with dozens of other close Milosevic associates, at Kostunica's Sava Center inauguration on Saturday night, his presence one of many bitter ironies of the current limbo situation. Having just defeated Milosevic in a revolution, the opposition must now work side by side with the men and women who helped Milosevic engineer a system of police, media and political repression that kept people submissive all these years.

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Kostunica vows to try to focus his new government on fixing Serbia's devastated economy. Embraced as a welcome beacon of hope who might take the Balkans off Western policymakers' crisis maps in a few years time, Kostunica has been invited by European Union officials to a meeting in the south of France on Monday. Both the U.S. and EU have promised to lift certain sanctions on Serbia's economy, including an oil embargo, as early as Monday.


Laura Rozen

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

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