A new era has begun in Serbia, not only because Slobodan Milosevic has at last been expelled from office but because the deed was accomplished by the Serbian people acting in solidarity and without recourse to violence to seize their political destiny. The world will not soon forget the spectacle of Serbian riot police embracing demonstrators or the ballots spilling from the windows of the Serbian Parliament building.
Six months ago, such developments were unthinkable: Serbia’s opposition had grown battle-weary and despondent, outmaneuvered by a repressive regime and fractured by internal divisions. Much of the credit for the energy, creativity and wherewithal of the protests belongs to Serbia’s youth movement, Otpor, which aggressively advocated coalition-building, nonviolent civil disobedience and the importance of winning police and military support. The popular rebellion in Serbia bore the hallmarks of Otpor’s strategy, as well as the youth movement’s exuberance and optimism.
Still, the politics of coalition-building are complicated and perilous. Can groups, individuals and institutions that once supported Milosevic’s ruling party or that launched and sustained the rhetoric of war really be trusted to help lead Serbia into the new era? For how long will the eighteen opposition parties that united behind Vojislav Kostunica continue to cooperate in the absence of a common enemy? Given Serbia’s deeply divided political scene, Kostunica, a nationalist democrat from the center right, was a canny choice for presidential nominee: Uncorrupted by regime ties or mafia connections, Kostunica has a reputation for personal honesty and integrity. An anti-Communist, he also has a history of fierce opposition to Western interference in Serbian affairs. He has denounced the Hague war crimes tribunal as a political tool, he had strong wartime ties to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and he decried the Dayton agreement of 1995, favoring more substantial Serbian territorial claims in Bosnia. As for the Serbian offensive against Albanians in Kosovo, Kostunica once told the Chicago Tribune, “Their leaders asked for Kosovo to be bombed. How should we behave? How would Americans behave?”
These views appealed to Milosevic’s former constituency as well as to the substantial nationalist opposition that has long felt that Milosevic betrayed Serbian territorial aims and soiled the country’s international image. Many ordinary Serbs share an abiding distrust of the international community, especially the United States, which they feel punished the people for the actions of a leader many of them despised. At the same time, although he wears his nationalism proudly, Kostunica says that it entails neither chauvinistic intent nor “Greater Serbian” aspirations. Kostunica has always opposed the deployment of paramilitaries, and he is a democrat who favors a free press, a truth commission and the rule of law. His impressively level-headed command of the peaceful rebellion speaks for his commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution within Yugoslavia.
And yet there is an antinationalist segment of the Serbian opposition, however small, that embraces the country’s new leader very cautiously. These civil society leaders, many of whom weathered the Milosevic years in Serbia’s sizable NGO community, worry that Kostunica will bring with him certain elites who fell from Milosevic’s favor in the mid-nineties. After all, among Kostunica’s close allies are the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts and the Serbian Orthodox Church, both of which helped produce the nationalist rhetoric that Milosevic seized to bolster popular support and to fuel the war machine. Serbian nationalism in all its varieties will not soon disappear, and the student movement in particular has a crucial role to play in keeping Kostunica, as well as his future challengers, honest and in helping a meaningful political life to take root at last in Serbia.
Meanwhile, the practical challenges are monumental. Yugoslavia’s economy is a shambles. Not only did NATO bomb key factories last year; not only did sanctions create a vacuum since filled by an all-pervasive black market; not only does Serbia lack a banking system and access to foreign banks; but Milosevic and his cronies established an elite class of gangsters and paramilitaries whose ill-gotten wealth will be difficult to simply wish away. To neutralize the power of organized crime, the holdings of war profiteers and mafia lords may have to be legalized, or at the very least, these characters, who have played such a nefarious role in Serbia’s financial and cultural life for the past decade, must be persuaded to invest their wealth constructively. In a society whose institutions, from banks and hospitals to schools and courts, have been neglected or co-opted, and where the flight of the professional classes became a virtual hemorrhage, the road to recovery will be long indeed. Although the easing of sanctions and the promise of aid will help, the people of Serbia must survive a very difficult period of adjustment.
At the end of this period, however, Serbia, the largest and most populous nation in the ex-Yugoslav region, could once again become a forceful neighbor. This is just one reason that it is so important for Serbia to reckon with its recent history and rebuild its relationships with the other ex-Yugoslav republics on a foundation of humility and cooperation. The status of Montenegro remains an open and vexed question, with some of Milo Djukanovic’s followers still straining for independence and Milosevic’s party officially governing Montenegro on the federal level. And against the will of the Albanian majority, Kosovo remains nominally a part of Yugoslavia; with a reputable government in Belgrade, the international community will eventually withdraw.
The question of reconciliation with the past, specifically Serbia’s role in the Yugoslav wars, is also a critical one, and it will most likely be resolved on local terms or not at all. Many Serbs believe they have been demonized by the world media and unfairly singled out for punishment for the Bosnian war. Thus, stern rebukes from abroad often meet with hostility. Although Kostunica has unfortunately vowed not to cooperate with The Hague, he may offer war crimes trials on Serbian soil. One hopes the new freedom of expression Kostunica promises will allow journalists and academics to explore recent history publicly and candidly. This internal process will be delicate, painful and contentious, but it offers the possibility of deep and lasting change.