Kostunica - He's not Milosevic

Yugoslavia: Despite his ultra-nationalism, the man who appears poised to take power in Belgrade looks pretty good to Western leaders.

September 28, 2000|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Vojislav Kostunica, the lawyer backed by the United States and Europe to take over the presidency of Yugoslavia, opposed communist dictator Tito in the 1970s and as a law professor oversaw the translation of the American Federalist Papers into Serbo-Croatian.

He has also provocatively posed in Kosovo with a rifle to assert Serbia's claim to the province, has backed indicted Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic and been quoted as excusing the 1995 massacre of 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica as an "act of self-defense" by Serbs.

In short, while the West sees Kostunica as vastly preferable to Slobodon Milosevic as Yugoslavia's leader, he is not the West's dream candidate.

Yesterday, Washington was beginning to come to terms with the prospect, nearly inconceivable only a few weeks ago, that Kostunica will assume control of the Yugoslav federation, consisting of Serbia, Montenegro and a Kosovo province under UN protection.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators descended on Belgrade last night demanding that Milosevic step down after his apparent loss in national elections Sunday.

If Kostunica's success at the polls shocked Milosevic and his Socialist coalition, it also surprised Western diplomats, who were delving anew yesterday into the background of a figure who lives modestly with his wife and numerous cats but whose shoulder bears a big chip of Serbian pride.

"He has said that Milosevic should not be extradited. He doesn't like the United States. He doesn't like NATO. However, he's very pro-European," says James Hooper, director of the Washington office of the International Crisis Group. "There's a lot to work with, but I think there are going to be problems with his nationalism."

Acknowledging Kostunica's hostile statements toward Washington and a nationalism that would be condemned in leaders of other nations, Clinton administration officials are trying to focus attention on his promising points.

"The feeling of some people on the ground who have dealt with him has been that a large measure of what he has said in recent months was for electoral credibility," says an administration official who insisted on anonymity.

"But the feeling is that he is reasonably pragmatic, not totally hostile to American principles. The expectation is that over time there will be room to maneuver, that a constructive relationship can be worked out" with the United States.

Because NATO's bombardment of Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 killed thousands and wrecked Yugoslavia's economy, no Serb who is even vaguely pro-Washington or pro-NATO would have a chance of being elected to succeed Milosevic, say U.S. officials and independent analysts.

"He made statements about the rights of Serbia and Serb peoples during a conflict while we were on the other side of the conflict," says Ivo Daalder, a Balkans specialist with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's not surprising that he said some things we're not going to like. What matters is what he does now."

Kostunica, 56, was born in the heart of Serbia at the end of World War II as the son of a Supreme Court judge removed from power by Josip Broz Tito, the communist ruler who took power after the war. Kostunica earned a law degree at the University of Belgrade and then joined the school's faculty.

Tito fired him in 1974 for criticizing Yugoslavia's new constitution, which ostensibly extended autonomy to the country's provinces but was interpreted by Serb nationalists as putting new power in the hands of the federal government. During the 1980s he worked for Belgrade's Institute of Social Studies, a refuge for anticommunist dissidents.

When the communist regime began to disintegrate, Kostunica founded the Democratic Party, only to break away and form the Democratic Party of Serbia, after he deemed the original group insufficiently nationalistic.

Although many in the West see Kostunica's hard-line nationalism as inconsistent with his advocacy for democratic principles, many Serbs endorse him as an alternative to Milosevic's disregard for the rule of law and human rights.

"He genuinely believes in this classic Western liberalism," says Aleksa Djilas, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the son of the late Yugoslavian dissident Milovan Djilas. "I could not imagine him banning a newspaper or using a police force for anything but pursuing criminals."

By many accounts, Kostunica is almost alone among Serb nationalist leaders in being untainted by corruption or association with Milosevic. His bland personality and his belief in the rule of law kept him in the background of Yugoslav politics. Even the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia failed to push him into Milosevic's orbit, as it did other opposition leaders.

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