Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Vidovdan Curse

Will future historians note that this was the year that Serbia finally escaped the clutch of the Vidovdan curse?
By Tim Judah

One of the advantages of modern technology is that everyone, all over the world, can learn about what is going on instantly. But, of course, it doesn't help us foretell the future, even if that event takes place on June 28, the Serbian holy day of Vidovdan - St Vitus - a day associated with some of the most momentous episodes in the nation's history.


On June 29, 1389, the day after the Battle of Kosovo, it was rather unclear, even to the best informed of medieval analysts, that the result would sooner or later usher in five hundred years of Ottoman Turkish domination.


Likewise, which pundits were predicting the end of civilisation as they knew it in their columns on June 29, 1914, the day after Gavrilo Princip's assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo? Similarly no one on June 29, 1989, could anticipate that Slobodan Milosevic's Gazimestan speech to one million Serbs 24 hours before would herald the violent dismemberment of the country.


For the record, it is worth noting that, according to Zarko Korac, the Serbian deputy premier, the fact that Milosevic found himself bundled onto a helicopter to Tuzla on Vidovdan was "pure coincidence".


Well, the results of the extradition may not reverberate for the next half millennium or so, but they are already reverberating in Serbia and Yugoslavia. Still, even though we may only be talking about the next few days, one thing is clear - no one yet knows what the political fallout will be.


At the time of writing, Belgrade was bracing itself for a rally called by Vojislav Seselj's ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. This could turn violent, but Serbian insiders are expecting to weather this storm without too much trouble.


Politically speaking, the real fallout will come at two levels. The Socialist People's Party, SNP, from Montenegro, Milosevic's former allies, have said they will walk out of the unnatural governing coalition in which it is supposed to rule Yugoslavia with Serbia's reformists from the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS.


If the SNP make good on their threat, this could result in a minority government or even new Yugoslav elections. But, this may not happen if the SNP decide that having registered their protest, they'd prefer not to risk a new poll, which, of course, would have major ramifications on the already deeply polarised Montenegrin political scene.


Also, at the time of writing, unconfirmed reports were suggesting that Milan Milutinovic, the president of Serbia, was preparing to give himself up to The Hague tribunal. If this proves to be true, then a battle royal will immediately commence, as candidates line up to seek election in the new presidential polls which will have to be called.


Milutinovic is, of course, a relic of the Milosevic era but, ever since the latter's fall, he has kept very quiet, hoping to put off his own day of judgement for as long as possible. The Serbian president was indicted for war crimes at the same time as Milosevic.


The reason Milutinovic was left in office was simply because nobody from the disparate DOS coalition wanted to open hostilities over what is in fact probably the most important job in the country. Today, its powers are in abeyance, because the job is held by Milutinovic, but once a new president is elected he or she will certainly want to exercise the real power that comes with the job.


Over the past few months, the list of possible candidates mentioned has included Zoran Djindjic, the current Serbian premier and Vojislav Kostunica, the Yugoslav president. Even if it turns out that Milutinovic's departure for The Hague is not imminent, it still cannot be long before he finds himself heading north.


Of course, while these are exciting times in Serbia, it will be a measure of its maturing young democracy, as to whether the country now lurches into chaos or whether, in fact, politics now simply take their course in a peaceful way.


Korac, for example, thinks that despite Serbia's current supercharged political atmosphere, the Yugoslav government won't collapse and neither will DOS. In fact, after a few days of shouting, everything will go back to normal and Serbia and perhaps Yugoslavia will continue their slow return to normality.


If Korac is right, then the country will be far better placed to absorb and put to good use some of the millions of dollars now being pledged for Yugoslavia at the donor's conference in Brussels.


On a recent trip to London, Goran Svilanovic, the Yugoslav foreign minister, complained that Serbia's reformists had come to power with an agenda to change the country and drag it kicking and screaming into the 21st century. However, he said that the problems they faced would have been enormous enough even without being burdened with the Albanian insurgency in south Serbia and pressure to hand over Milosevic.


Today, the insurgency is over, Milosevic is out of the country, and vast amounts are being pledged to rebuild the country. So, let's hope that future historians note that this was the year that Serbia finally escaped the clutch of the Vidovdan curse!


Tim Judah is the author of The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia published by Yale University Press.


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