'Good evening, liberated Serbia'

The President-elect
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The Independent Online

He appeals to Serbs because he is "ordinary honest and decent". Yet even as he stood in front of the cheering crowds in Belgrade last night and roared: "Good evening liberated Serbia," nothing in his personality could explain Vojislav Kostunica's sudden emergence as a force capable of uniting the fractured Serb opposition, and inspiring a revolution to unseat Slobodan Milosevic.

He appeals to Serbs because he is "ordinary honest and decent". Yet even as he stood in front of the cheering crowds in Belgrade last night and roared: "Good evening liberated Serbia," nothing in his personality could explain Vojislav Kostunica's sudden emergence as a force capable of uniting the fractured Serb opposition, and inspiring a revolution to unseat Slobodan Milosevic.

Serbs have traditionally been seduced by charismatic leaders, pompous campaigns, big words and easy promises. They got nothing of the kind from the 56-year-old lawyer and academic who wears crumpled suits, drives a Yugo, and who had been seen as a lightweight and a political loner.

It is a measure of the political sea change Serbia has undergone, that Mr Kostunica has been able to spring forth, with the backing and support of his former opposition rivals Zoran Djindjic and Vuk Draskovic.

The sands began to shift three months ago when, after years of divisive bickering, Serbia's opposition leaders finally came together to find an agreed challenger to Slobodan Milosevic. At the back of the hall lurked Mr Kostunica. Hardly a fresh face, he had languished for years in their shadows.

Yet here was a man the electorate could identify with, someone who had demonstrated his integrity and his anti-Communist credentials - he was expelled from his university post in 1974 for criticising President Tito. And he had never associated with, worked with or even met Mr Milosevic, and he had shown himself to be a strident nationalist who would not easily compromise with Serbia's enemies.

At the end of the Eighties, Mr Kostunica had co-founded the original Democratic Party, now led by Zoran Djindjic. He left, accusing his partners of being too soft in their nationalism, particularly their perceived lack of support for Bosnian Serbs.

By 1992, Mr Kostunica had his own party - the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) - and joined forces with Vuk Draskovic, leader of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO). After a pathetic showing in the elections that year, Mr Kostunica backed out again and for years refused all coalition offers from opposition parties, or Milosevic backers.

The Nato bombing changed everything. Mr Djindjic and Mr Draskovic made critical errors, playing into Mr Milosevic's hands and wrecking their own chances. Mr Draskovic served on the Milosevic wartime cabinet, and Mr Djindjic spent most of the war in the seaside resorts of Montenegro, abandoning his party and supporters.

Mr Kostunica kept a low profile and after the war, as Serbia slid deeper into economic decline, his stock steadily rose. Three months ago, Mr Djindjic and Mr Draskovic sacrificing their own ambitions, threw their lot behind him.

"He is an ordinary man, he is honest, decent" or "He talks no nonsense" were opinions heard often during the election campaign, when Mr Kostunica trailed around the Serbian countryside. His campaign was modest: three ancient buses carried the candidate and his activists the length and breadth of impoverished Serbia.

People were already singing the slogans "Save Serbia and Kill Yourself, Slobodan" and "Save us from this madhouse Kostunica".

Thousands flocked to hear him speak of God, of a return to true Serb values, of the need for hard work, the decontamination of corrupt and destroyed society, and the re-integration of Serbia into Europe. In the remoter villages, people brought out bread and salt or fruit to welcome him.

He had begun his rallies with readings from the Prophecy of Kreman, a bible for superstitious Serbs. "In the year 2,000, Serbia will be led by a man whose surname is the same as the name of the village he came from." Mr Kostunica comes from the village of Kostunici.

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