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

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

Share

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)

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: FP&A Manager Supply Chain

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Argyll Scott is recruiting for a Permane...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property NQ+

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: COMMERCIAL PROPERTY SOLI...

Argyll Scott International: Retail Commercial Finance Analyst

Benefits: Argyll Scott International: Due to further expansion, a leading inte...

Langley James : Senior Technician; Promotion & Training Opp; Borough; upto £32k

£27000 - £32000 per annum + training: Langley James : Senior Technician; Promo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Shanghai  

Is Russia and China’s ‘Nato of the East’ more than a Potemkin alliance?

Nigel Morris
A petition calling for Natalie Bennett, the leader of the Green Party, to be included has been signed by nearly 200,000 people  

Let me list the reasons that the Green Party should definitely not be allowed into the TV election debates...

Mark Steel
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines