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Yugoslavia: Can Kostunica Bring Democracy?

  • Alexandra Poolos

New Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica was sworn into office this weekend. From Belgrade, RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos profiles the former opposition leader and examines the difficulties he faces as he begins to take control of government.

Belgrade, 9 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Vojislav Kostunica seemed calm and at ease this weekend as he mingled with political leaders from home and abroad at a cocktail party ahead of his inauguration as new Yugoslav president.

Kostunica greeted everyone -- from Western diplomats to top Yugoslav generals -- with a warm smile and a strong handshake. Later, the 56-year-old constitutional law professor gave his inaugural speech in front of the federal parliament:

"All the time I imagined that one day -- despite all of our differences -- we would together be able to realize a civilized dialogue even when the differences among us are great. That we can again be together and not exchange violent words against one other, not be violent toward each other. And I think, this new era is in front of us."

But in spite of Kostunica's composure, the question on many minds is whether this relatively unknown former opposition figure -- who successfully ousted Slobodan Milosevic -- can really bring democracy to Yugoslavia.

He faces many difficulties, including a shattered economy, a country deeply depressed after 13 years of Milosevic's rule, and a national reckoning with war crimes committed in other Yugoslav republics in Serbia's name.

But in the short term, the greatest difficulty facing the new president is whether he will have real political control in Yugoslavia. Although Milosevic is no longer president, the imprints of his power remain strong, especially in the Yugoslav parliament, where Milosevic's Socialist party colleagues control many seats.

The Yugoslav presidency is traditionally a ceremonial office. Constitutionally, the real power in the country lies in the republican and federal parliaments, where elected deputies decide on the laws of Serbia and on the federation as a whole.

Kostunica's degree of control over the Serbian and federal parliament will not be clear for at least a week. But leading Serbian political analyst Srdjan Bogosavljevic says Kostunica's background as a legal scholar and the strength of his 18-party strong Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS, indicate that he will not be at the mercy of Milosevic's Socialist allies:

"He is a guy who is big on legislation, and now it is impossible to act within this framework, which is given by Milosevic, in fact. So, within this framework, he must make the necessary changes, and I think that is the main challenge that he has [the parliamentary opposition doesn't] have any real power yet. But his power as given by the constitution now is quite high. So I don't think that he will only be a ceremonial [president]. I rather think that he will be the man who is going to make all the necessary changes."

Bogosavljevic says that the most surprising thing about Kostunica is not the massive public support he received from Serbian citizens, but that he managed to unite an opposition fractured in Serbia for over a decade:

"What was surprising was that he would be accepted by the united opposition. The Socialist Party of Serbia was surprised because they have done everything that was necessary and they didn't expect that somebody would be the accepted leader of 18 parties."

Bogosavljevic says that Kostunica was given enormous popular support by Serbs because, unlike other well-known opposition leaders such as Vuk Draskovic, he never had any connection with Milosevic and his socialist government.

Kostunica established himself in Serbia as a top legal scholar with a well-received critical study of the U.S. federalist papers. He then began a career teaching law at Belgrade University. In the 1970s, he was expelled along with other legal experts for criticizing the Yugoslav Constitution promulgated at the time. Kostunica was able to find work in an institute for social sciences. Such public-sector employment was then considered by the government to wield little influence in society.

Kostunica has been criticized in the West because he identifies himself as a Serb nationalist and has refused to turn Milosevic over to the UN's tribunal at The Hague, where the former president has been indicted for war crimes. The critics say that Serbia must come to terms with the fact that Milosevic, their elected leader, is a war criminal responsible for four wars and tens of thousands of deaths in the former Yugoslav republics.

But Kostunica has criticized the Hague tribunal as a political court controlled by the West, and not an independent legal institution. He insists on the full implementation of UN resolutions on Kosovo, including the safe return of Serbian refugees to the province. Kostunica has also insisted that Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia, a position that has provoked anger from the province's majority of ethnic Albanians, many of whom want independence.

Bogosavljevic says that Kostunica's position on sending Milosevic to The Hague will probably not change during his tenure in office:

"I'm sure he would be a tough negotiator on Kosovo, and most likely instead of sending Milosevic to The Hague, he would try to do something inside the country. True, the leaders -- the Western leaders -- would be in favor of that because then they would get rid of Milosevic."

Of course, much remains to be settled in the Serbian political scene in coming months, but Kostunica has already been acting fast. In his first decision after taking the oath of office, he lifted a Serbian economic blockade on Montenegro and ended customs duties introduced two years ago. He said his top priority is to resolve problems between Serbia and Montenegro, partners in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic has said that unless the two republics remain equal in the federation, he will opt for independence. The two leaders are expected to meet in the coming weeks.

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