Kostunica's 'Middle Way'

Vuk Draskovic's decision to put up a rival candidate has taken the shine off Vojislav Kostunica's nomination as presidential candidate for the united opposition. Hopes are now pinned on forcing a second round head-to-head against Milosevic.

Kostunica's 'Middle Way'

Vuk Draskovic's decision to put up a rival candidate has taken the shine off Vojislav Kostunica's nomination as presidential candidate for the united opposition. Hopes are now pinned on forcing a second round head-to-head against Milosevic.

On August 7 Vojislav Kostunica, leader of the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, confirmed his acceptance of the united Serbian opposition nomination as presidential candidate. Known to many as "Seselj in a tuxedo" - a reference to Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Radical Party and an extreme nationalist - Kostunica could stand a good chance of ousting the incumbent Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic if he can make it into a second round run-off.

The decision by the Serbian Renewal Movement, Vuk Draskovic's SPO party, to put up a rival candidate has however complicated Kostunica's prospects. The SPO candidate Vojislav Mihailovic, the current mayor of Belgrade, is widely considered an incompetent and weak choice, but one likely to split the opposition vote.

Srbobran Brankovic, director of Medijum, a public opinion research institute in Belgrade, said the SPO had chosen "the weakest possible candidate to weaken the rest of the opposition."

Kostunica's backers remain confident, however, that their candidate could push Milosevic into a second round run-off and, in a one-to-one contest, could win. Opinion polls conducted in June by the Institute of Social Sciences in Belgrade found that 42 per cent of voters would support Kostunica in a presidential race against Milosevic, who could expect only 28 per cent of votes.

On accepting the nomination Kostunica said, "It is probably a result of my consistent anti-regime policy, combined with a good feeling for national problems."

Speaking to the Banja Luka based newspaper Nezavisne Novine in June, Kostunica said, "In everything I have done, I have seen myself as someone who could take part in building democratic institutions in Serbia, that is the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro."

He considers the premier of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, to be a puppet of the international community and he is one the few leaders of the Serbian democratic opposition who refused to attend the inauguration of Milo Djukanovic, President of Montenegro.

Pointing out that Djukanovic in a previous incarnation played the Milosevic's loyalist, Kostunica once said the Montenegrin leader's party began its rise to power "at Zuta greda [a wave of protest in 1988] and continues today on the front lawn of the White House."

Kostunica has described relations between foreigners and the Serbian state as "a game in which everything is given up in return for almost nothing, except symbolic concessions." He has said "foreigners should be pressured to unconditionally solve the question of sanctions and war damage," and he believes the opposition should shun support from the West.

The nickname "Seselj in a tuxedo" may appear alarming to the West, but in Serbia most opposition supporters accept Kostunica as a "moderate nationalist."

Kostunica criticised NATO's bombing campaign against Yugoslavia and has shunned talks with officials from NATO member countries. This policy has prevented the Milosevic regime from using one of its favourite ploys - labeling opponents "traitors and foreign mercenaries."

His slogan "No to the White House, No to [Milosevic's] White Castle" illustrates his stance against both the Yugoslav president and Western policy in the former Yugoslavia. He is vociferously opposed to The Hague Tribunal, which he has described as a "monstrous institution", and contemptuous of the war crimes indictment issued against Milosevic.

Kostunica has also been heavily critical of the United Nations and NATO post-war operation in the province, especially over the plight of Kosovo's Serbian population.

Eleven years ago Kostunica and a group of friends founded the Democratic Party, the first opposition party in Serbia. Since then, he has combined an anti-regime standpoint with an unswerving nationalism, which disdains chauvinism or warmongering.

"We [Serbs] have not destroyed Yugoslavia, nor will we allow it to destroy us," was his refrain during the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. He remained sensitive to the national question, but accused Milosevic of manipulating Serb minorities for his own purposes. "For them, solving the national question has always been a means and not an end," he said in 1994.

But he has also vented his spleen on Milosevic's enemies, attacking as "cosmopolitans" those who are ashamed to be patriotic and deriding as "micro-patriots" those he believes wish to "make an ocean" of the river Drina, which separates Bosnian Serbs from the Serbia.

Kostunica left the Democratic Party to form the DSS on the eve of elections in 1992, partly because the party's leader Zoran Djindic refused to join the Depos opposition coalition and partly over differences on national matters. He soon parted company with Vuk Draskovic too, claiming he was impossible to work with and not serious about wresting power from the Milosevic regime.

"We have different interests - ours is how to win the elections as a united opposition and Draskovic's are how to win an election in such a way that Milosevic doesn't lose," he said.

After the parliamentary elections of 1993, Kostunica refused to allow his seven deputies to form a block with the Democratic Party because Djindic had been negotiating with Milosevic to join the government. Unlike Draskovic or Djindjic, Kostunica has never negotiated with the Milosevic government - another factor contributing to his high poll rating.

Kostunica refuses coalitions on purely pragmatic grounds making him the least compromised opposition leader, but also the hardest to work with. He is known to be incorruptible and his unswerving, sometimes impractical refusal to jettison his views over the last few years probably accounts for his high approval ratings. But while the patriotic-democratic "middle way" may be the trump card that sways regime voters, his nationalism may make him unappealing to the international community.

This needn't be the case. Both Djukanovic and Biljana Plavsic were forgiven nationalist pedigrees far more ferocious than Kostunica's when they embarked on pragmatic co-operation with the international community.

Kostunica's campaign motto is, "Neither war, nor capitulation." His basic pre-election message is "Survival of the state." But his policy also recognises that finding a way back into the international community is a pre-requisite of survival.

"The return will be painful, in some ways humiliating, but there is no other way," Kostunica said.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor.

Support our journalists