Can Mr Milosevic put the genie of democracy back into the bottle?

I always forget the first lesson of the Balkans: expect the unexpected

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It took some time to sink in that something extraordinary was happening in Belgrade. An hour after the polls closed, thousands of opposition supporters were chanting victory slogans in the centre of town. A rival group, supporting President Slobodan Milosevic, was gathering a few hundred yards away. The riot police were being deployed. "There could be clashes within half an hour," said Zarko Korac, my friend, the leader of one of Serbia's opposition parties. An hour or so later, the few hundred Milosevic supporters had gone home, while the riot police were fraternising with the people who were chanting: "Slobo - Kill Yourself! Save Serbia!"

It took some time to sink in that something extraordinary was happening in Belgrade. An hour after the polls closed, thousands of opposition supporters were chanting victory slogans in the centre of town. A rival group, supporting President Slobodan Milosevic, was gathering a few hundred yards away. The riot police were being deployed. "There could be clashes within half an hour," said Zarko Korac, my friend, the leader of one of Serbia's opposition parties. An hour or so later, the few hundred Milosevic supporters had gone home, while the riot police were fraternising with the people who were chanting: "Slobo - Kill Yourself! Save Serbia!"

I always forget the first lesson of the Balkans: expect the unexpected. Through the night, the same picture began filtering out from across Serbia. In the little of town of Leskovac, Tony Montano, a rock singer who sings for Milosevic, packed up his instruments and went home. No one turned up to hear his songs of victory; they were too busy celebrating Milosevic's defeat.

As the night wore on, it was clear not only that Milosevic was doing badly, but also that his regime had no idea how to respond. In a panic, the Federal Election Commission declared that it was "too late" to go on working, and when the opposition delegates protested, they were evicted from the building by security guards.

So, Milosevic has lost a battle. But has he lost the war? We will see, by what he decides to do in the next few days. But, with the opposition claiming a landslide victory in the presidential and local elections, it would seem very hard now for him to recapture the genie of democracy that he unwittingly released. Of course, Milosevic's camp is also declaring victory, but in a very muted way. And, don't get me wrong. It isn't too late for Milosevic to clamp down and send Serbia squarely back on the road to becoming Europe's very own Cuba, but the likelihood is that, even while Milosevic fights back, the opposition has the wind in its sails. It will be hard to stop, but there are battles yet to come.

How did Milosevic, the arch- tactician who, until now, has gambled and lost everything except his own hold on power, make such a fatal mistake? He changed the constitution of Yugoslavia to make the job, for the first time, a directly elected one. He set the terms of the election. He said: "It's me or Nato!" That is to say, if you weren't with Milosevic, you were a traitor and a Nato stooge. After all, he thought, with opposition leaders like Serbia's - fractious, vain and often corrupt - he could easily play his tried and tested game of divide and rule.

And many thought he was right. And one reason for this was that they believed their own insults and propaganda. They believed that Milosevic really was a dictator and a tyrant. Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. If you were one of the 850,000 Kosovo Albanians who fled their homes last year, this would be a fair enough description. If you were the wife or mother of one of the thousands of Bosnian Muslim men who died at the hands of Bosnian Serb forces, which were backed by Milosevic, in the killing fields of Srebrenica in July 1995, then this was also pretty accurate. But, even tyrants can have double standards. Killing Albanians and Muslims en masse is one thing, killing young Serbs is another.

Dealing with his own people, Milosevic has been an authoritarian. Over the last year, for example, thousands of young activists have been arrested, harassed and beaten. But, there is no Serbian gulag and there are no mass graves full of Serbian boys and girls who have raised their voices against Milosevic. There is a journalist in prison for writing the truth about what the Yugoslav army did in Kosovo - his name is Miroslav Filipovic - but there are not dozens of journalists in jail.

So, what happened? Several things came together. From the top and the bottom. At the top, the feuding opposition managed to put aside their quarrels and shrewdly chose a man to lead them whom Milosevic could not tar with a Nato brush. When Vuk Draskovic, the mercurial and fiery opposition leader of the past decade, who has also been in government with Milosevic, declared he would not support this new opposition group, many thought, "Milosevic wins again!" because they believed that Draskovic had split the vote. They were wrong. The rest of the opposition was relieved because Draskovic was ballast, and with him over side, they began to soar.

Of course, the 18 opposition parties are a broad church indeed. Famously, Nenad Canak, the leader of one party from Vojvodina, Serbia's northern province, appealed to voters to "hold their noses" and vote for the presidential candidate they had agreed on, Vojislav Kostunica, whose nationalism Canak for one can't stomach.

And it was the right thing to say. The Milosevic camp went into the polls fighting last year's battles. They had the footage of Draskovic kissing the hand of Madeleine Albright, and other opposition leaders hobnobbing with Tony Blair, Javier Solana et al. And now, all of a sudden, they found themselves fighting Mr Kostunica who, unlike Milosevic, believed his nationalism rather than used it as a convenient tool, and who not only denounced Nato's "frantic and criminal" bombing of Yugoslavia, but actually refused to kiss the hands, nay even visit, those leaders whom he had just denounced.

At the grass roots something was changing, too. A student-based group called Otpor - Resistance - had been out campaigning in the countryside, in the provinces, making converts and shaming their elders. If they would risk a police beating, then surely, when it came to it, the least their parents could do would be to get out and vote when the time came?

And so, Milosevic's ploy failed. His attempt to set the election agenda failed. It was not a referendum on "Milosevic or Nato" but rather: Milosevic - or someone else.

So if Milosevic is indeed on the way out, what will post-Milosevic Serbia look like? The issue of independence for Montenegro will fade away. But the question of Kosovo will not. Still, with Kostunica at its head, a new Serbia would argue that Kosovo belonged to Serbia - but it would argue with words, not bullets.

And for Serbia itself, the heartlands? A disaster zone, economically and socially. Not helped by 78 days of Nato bombing, of course, but a catastrophe primarily of Milosevic's making. Huge problems remain to be solved, but, as Zarko Korac e-mailed me at dawn yesterday: "It is a cold and cloudy morning in Belgrade, but I see some strange light. Whatever happened, Serbia changed." I think you can forgive the emotion.

 

Tim Judah is author of 'The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia' (Yale University Press)

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