Unfinished revolution in Serbia

December 10, 2000|By Louise Branson

WASHINGTON -- Two months after the popular uprising that forced dictator Slobodan Milosevic out of power in Serbia, a mood of uncertainty prevails. Posters put up by the student group Otpor (Resistance) capture the unease. Underneath a picture of a giant bulldozer, symbol of the revolution, is a warning to new Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and his entourage: "We are still watching."

Will these new leaders, is the message's subtext, prove corrupt like the Milosevic regime? Or incompetent? Or somehow fail to fulfill both their promise and the hopes of Serbs for a better life after 13 years under a nationalist tyrant who instigated and lost four wars in less than a decade?

The uncertainty has foundation. The upheaval that jolted Serbia in October is showing signs it could become the unfinished revolution.

Mr. Kostunica faces the same dilemma as each of the region's communist regimes that tried to make the transition to democracy. How to overcome the culture of dictatorship? Serbia for decades has been ruled by a strongman: Mr. Milosevic was following the mold of Yugoslavia's communist leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

Many of Mr. Kostunica's followers wanted him to assume that familiar Balkan all-powerful persona. They wanted a new strongman directing a radical revolution, starting with the arrest of Mr. Milosevic and his hated wife, Mira Markovic. They sought even a possible replay of the street justice in which Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena, were executed after a similar uprising in 1989.

"We want a complete change, not just a switch of some of the top people," complained a journalist at the outspoken Vreme magazine.

Mr. Kostunica, 56, is a mild-mannered constitutional lawyer who wants to follow the letter of the law. But this puts him in a Catch-22 position. Under the Yugoslav constitution, the position he now holds -- president of Yugoslavia -- is largely ceremonial. It only became a powerful post when Mr. Milosevic took it. Mr. Milosevic was a man who imbued positions with power, not the other way around.

Mr. Kostunica's grip on his country is wobbly at best. At a November meeting organized by the European Union (EU) for Balkan leaders, his Croatian counterpart, Stipe Mesic, publicly declared that "Kostunica does not control a single lever of power."

That is not much of an exaggeration. Mr. Kostunica has held back on taking over most institutions until elections on Dec. 23 for the parliament of Serbia (Yugoslavia now consists of Serbia and its smaller sister, Montenegro).

That hardly bodes well. The Serb president, Milan Milutinovic, who is not up for re-election until the spring, is a crony of Mr. Milosevic, a fellow indictee of The Hague War Crimes Tribunal. In an indication Mr. Milosevic is far from finished, his Socialists overwhelmingly re-elected him head of their party at the end of November. Mr. Milosevic, in a speech dripping with vitriol against the new leaders, made it clear he hopes to make a political comeback.

Certainly, his disgraced party is unlikely to gain a majority in the Serb parliament. But Mr. Milosevic is a past master at Machiavellian manipulation. And he is the quintessential Balkan bully with little real regard for the law.

He is not completely without support. He is still surrounded by a corrupt entourage, which needs his protection from such charges as corruption, smuggling, black marketeering and war crimes.

For now the mood of Serbia is firmly behind Mr. Kostunica. But there eventually could be a popular backlash over rising prices and electricity shortages, which Mr. Milosevic's communist-style price controls kept in check but which are now rocketing.

"Of course, I am still with them," said student Mira Stojanovic, 22, in a typical remark summing up feelings toward Mr. Kostunica. "But I never have hot water for a shower or electricity for lights at night. I can only take this for one winter."

Mr. Kostunica's coalition of 18 parties, under the banner of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), is also far from solid. Cracks are not far from the surface, including a conflict between Mr. Kostunica and another leader, Zoran Djindjic.

A further potential problem is Montenegro, Serbia's restive sister republic. Even though Montenegrins consider themselves Serb cousins, their president, Milo Djukanovic, plans to hold a referendum on independence early next year. It is unlikely to be sanctioned by the outside world, and perhaps not even by Montenegrins who are deeply divided about it. But without Montenegro, there would be no Yugoslavia or a presidential office for Mr. Kostunica.

The outside world has rushed to prop up Mr. Kostunica, lifting most of the sanctions imposed on Serbia and admitting Yugoslavia once again to the United Nations. The EU has given emergency aid, with more to come. The United States has followed suit, though it wants future aid linked to the handing over of Mr. Milosevic to The Hague, which Mr. Kostunica has been reluctant to do.

But it's not clear that Mr. Kostunica will push this shaky unfinished revolution further and hold onto power.

Louise Branson is co-author of "Milosevic: Portrait of a Tyrant" (Free Press, 1999). She was Balkans correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, based in Belgrade, from 1990 to 1996.

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