Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbian Politics: New Rules, Emerging Players
By Dejan Anastasijevic
After successfully surviving NATO air strikes and the loss of Kosovo, Slobodan Milosevic has faced one more battle: to establish fresh legitimacy, both at home and internationally. Whatever the results of the September 24 federal, municipal, and presidential elections, both he and the opposition may find that the rules of the political game in Serbia have irrevocably changed.
Since 1989, when Milosevic first took presidential office, Serbia and Montenegro have gone through so many rounds of all kinds of polls - early and regular, federal and republican - that even the most meticulous political analysts have lost count. And every time, except on two occasions, Milosevic has emerged victorious.
The two exceptions were the 1996 municipal elections in Serbia, when the unified opposition front won, and the 1998 elections in Montenegro, which brought forward the pro-western government of Milo Djukanovic. In both cases, however, Milosevic was able to cut his losses and consolidate: in Serbia, the breakdown of the Zajedno ("Together") coalition - described in detail in this book - effectively annulled their electoral victory; in Montenegro, Djukanovic has proven unwilling or unable to step outside the boundaries of his little kingdom and challenge Milosevic's position in Serbia.
So what makes the September 2000 elections different? Despite considerable pressure, both by Serbian voters and the western powers, the two key players on the Serbian opposition political scene - Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic - have once again failed to unite. This practically ensures Milosevic's victory on the municipal level, where the opposition will come out with two separate lists under the one-round majority electoral system.
On the federal parliamentary level, gerrymandering and Montenegro's decision to boycott the polls have also provided Milosevic with an enormous head start. Add to this the lack of international monitoring, the government's tight grip over the national media, and the increasingly vicious harassment and intimidation campaign directed against opposition activists, as well as the independent media, and it seems that Milosevic will once again emerge as victor.
But this is not necessarily the case. In the aftermath of the NATO bombing, something big has moved deep in the Serbian electoral heart. The most visible symptom of that change is the emergence of Vojislav Kostunica, a mild-mannered law scholar, long thought to be a political lightweight, as the leading candidate in the presidential race. Weeks before the elections, opinion polls show that Kostunica has reached a level of popular support which Milosevic cannot overcome without resorting to outright fraud. Indeed, it would need to be a fraud so massive that it would annul the very purpose of the elections - to show the rest of the world that Milosevic can still, by love or by fear, control Serbian hearts and minds.
Kostunica's sudden popularity is not exactly explained by his personality or background. Although barely known outside Serbia, Kostunica is hardly a fresh face on the political scene. Indeed, he has languished for years in the shadow of Draskovic and Djindjic. He was born in 1944 in the village of Kostunici in Serbia's heartland region of Sumadija, as the only son of a prominent Supreme Court judge who was removed from office when the communists took power after the Second World War.
After graduating law in Belgrade and receiving a Ph.D. in the theory of constitutional law, he joined the university staff under the mentorship of Mihajlo Djuric, one of Serbia's most acclaimed legal minds. However, in 1974, Djuric and several other professors dared to criticize the new constitution of Yugoslavia - which nominally transferred much of the power from Belgrade to the republics and autonomous provinces, while in fact leaving it in the hands of Josip Broz Tito. Tito did not take criticism lightly, and the same year, Djuric and all those who sided with him - Kostunica included - were expelled from the university.
Later, Kostunica got a job in Belgrade's Institute of Social Studies, which served as a haven for liberal dissidents during much of the 1980s, and included, among others, the civic political leader Vesna Pesic and a number of philosophers from the "Praxis" group. In 1983, he co-authored, with Kosta Cavoski, a legal study on the advantages of multi-party systems over communist ones - a brave thing to do at that time and place. This book, which was circulated throughout the country in samizdat form, earned him much respect and confirmed his commitment to democracy.
By the end of the 1980s, Kostunica was lucky enough to witness the introduction of the multi-party system in Yugoslavia, as well as its subsequent degeneration under Milosevic. He was among the co-founders of the original Democratic Party - now led by Zoran Djindjic - and was among the first to leave it, believing that the Democrats were too soft on national issues - particularly in what he saw as their lack of support for Bosnian Serbs. Yet it was Djindjic, Kostunica's opponent in this debate, who later attempted to score political points by flirting with the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Kostunica, although in principle supporting the Bosnian Serbs' "right to self-determination", kept his distance from Pale throughout the war.
In 1992, Kostunica, who now had his own party - the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) - joined forces with Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), to forge, with several smaller parties, the DEPOS coalition. The coalition did poorly in the elections, and Kostunica stepped out again. "The main difference between Draskovic and me," Kostunica said at the time, "is that I want to win the elections, while Draskovic wants the same thing, but without Milosevic losing."
In the following years, Kostunica and his DSS consistently refused all offers to enter any sort of political partnership, either with other opposition parties or with Milosevic's cronies. He seemed content to run a party which, although not large enough to play a leading role, was still big enough to survive and secure a handful of seats at every poll.The low point in Kostunica's career was his failure to support the Zajedno coalition of winter 1996, when it looked as though Milosevic's days were really numbered. The coalition brought together the parties of Draskovic, Djindjic and Pesic, and there was considerable pressure from the DSS grassroots to join. After the breakdown of the coalition, however, Kostunica's strategy appeared justified, and his popularity began a slow, but steady rise. Still, he was considered a minor player on the Serbian political scene.
All this changed during the NATO bombing campaign in 1999. During and after the war, Djindjic and Draskovic made critical political mistakes, crippling their chances at any future polls. Draskovic accepted Milosevic's "kiss of death" by joining his war-time cabinet, and his erratic post-war behavior contributed to his further decline. Djindjic, on the other hand, spent most of the war in the seaside resorts of Montenegro, abandoning his party and supporters at the most difficult time of their lives. It goes without saying that Milosevic's propaganda machine was only too delighted to exploit these mistakes ad nauseam.
Kostunica, on the other hand, did what most Serbs did during the war: he kept his head down and waited for the war to pass. In the following months, his trickle of public support somehow turned into a river. This came not only from the disappointed supporters of Draskovic and Djindjic, but also from Serbia's silent majority: people who were not ardent supporters of Milosevic, but were - with reason - even more skeptical about the opposition, and had been ready to tolerate the regime as long as they could keep some pretence of "normal" life.
NATO missiles shattered this illusion, which Milosevic had managed to maintain in Serbia throughout the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Serbia did not officially take part in those conflicts, but now the experience of war was brought home. The post-war economic decline convinced even the few Serbian optimists that Serbia will soon hit rock bottom unless Milosevic is replaced. But with whom?
So people turned around and suddenly, at the back of the stage, saw Kostunica. He is a man with whom they can easily identify: someone who, despite years of being a professional politician, dresses modestly and, like many of them, drives a battered "Yugo" car instead of a BMW; a man who, just like most of them, believes the West has contributed to their misery no less than Milosevic; and finally, a man who has already proven his integrity - through his early writing, through his loner political strategy, through his behavior during the bombing - and will not easily compromise with enemies. Nothing of the above could be attributed to the other opposition leaders. Hence Kostunica's sudden popularity. Notably, his moderate nationalism has allowed him to appeal to the general population without alienating the liberal elite or even minorities.
This hardly means that his rolling wave of popularity will carry Kostunica all the way to the presidential palace. Kostunica's organizational skills are, at best, modest, and his own party remains too small to keep up the momentum. He is still dependent on Djindjic and a dozen smaller parties assembled in the latest opposition configuration, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), for the logistics of the campaign. Even if he wins, he will need their support in parliament in order to keep his job. In fact, his consistency and adherence to principles, which have won him so much support in the campaign, could turn to disadvantage in the aftermath if reduced to stubbornness and a lack of pragmatism.
But in advance of the elections, only one thing is certain: that no one can predict the aftermath. The vision of Milosevic congratulating Kostunica and gracefully stepping down from office is hard to conjure. In any event, it is sure that the elections will change the very nature of the political game in Serbia. If Kostunica wins, Serbia may take a difficult path towards some sort of normalcy. If Milosevic triumphs again, with or without the use of force, he will redesign the system in order to eliminate future risks at the polls - possibly even returning to one-party rule.
So these elections are not only a survival test for Milosevic - extradition to The Hague is by no means the worst thing that could happen to him if he loses power - but also for the opposition. If it fails now, the opposition can never again hope to win anyone's sympathy - much less trust. And as this study shows, through the prism of Draskovic and Djindjic, the dominant opposition leaders of the past decade, it will in many ways be a failure of their own making. Grassroots opposition such as the student movement Otpor, also covered here, may win new recruits and undertake more radical action. But it would seem unlikely that they could move beyond protest to bring real political transformation.
Serbia may thus slip into outright dictatorship, and the political struggle will be waged by means other than voting. In such a battle, most of the players in the opposition will have to be replaced, until personalities, parties and policies emerge with the real strength to replace the current president.
Dejan Anastasijevic is a senior journalist for the Belgrade weekly magazine Vreme, a freelance Balkan correspondent for Time magazine and a long-time contributor to the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, currently based in Vienna.
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