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2000 In Review: For Serbs, The Year Milosevic Fell

  • Jolyon Naegele

Serbs will long remember 2000 as the year Slobodan Milosevic was ousted from power after 13 years of war, corruption, political disintegration and economic decline. The year began like so many before it, with no prospect Milosevic would leave office. But after October's revolution, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Belgrade to protest, the year is ending in dramatic fashion, with president Vojislav Kostunica bringing the country back into the international community.

Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would probably still be in power today had he not miscalculated so badly and called early elections, a year-and-a-half before his mandate was due to expire.

Milosevic was reckoning that the country's fractured opposition would not be able to agree on a candidate to run against him and the election would reconfirm him as the Yugoslavia's unchallenged leader.

He had reason for optimism. For much of the year, the opposition failed to attract public support. A rally in Belgrade in May that had been expected to draw 100,000 people attracted just 10,000.

But the opposition was better prepared this time around than before -- thanks in large part to the work of the student resistance group "Otpor"("Resistance") and assistance from abroad.

As the September 24 election date approached, a coalition of 18 opposition parties and groups calling itself the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS, rallied around a little known constitutional scholar named Vojislav Kostunica.

Opposition activists, bolstered by favorable public opinion polls, had little doubt that if they remained united they could defeat Milosevic. But what they feared most was that Milosevic would refuse to recognize any result that did not show him the winner.

In the run-up to the election, the international community was outspoken in assuring voters that ousting Milosevic would be the fastest way to end trade sanctions imposed on the country. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, speaking in the name of the European Union, urged voters to repudiate the policies of Milosevic:

"On September 24th, the people of Serbia will be faced with a crucial political choice. Whatever the circumstances under which they have been decided and organized, the elections give the Serbian people the possibility of repudiating clearly and peacefully Milosevic's policies, which consist of political manipulation, the deprivation of freedom, impoverishment."

Milosevic was optimistic of victory up to election day. Speaking on September 24, he uttered these now-prophetic words:

"I am expecting this election will bring good to our country and our people. I'm expecting the political scene will be clarified. It will prepare the ground for long-term stability and even faster economic development."

As the ballots were counted, the Milosevic camp quickly realized its man had lost and tried to stop the count. When that failed, they ejected opposition members from the central electoral commission.

For 12 days, Milosevic stonewalled, insisting he had won. He initially claimed victory in the first round, than conceded that Kostunica was leading but that a run-off would be needed.

Kostunica, meanwhile, was claiming outright victory. Kostunica's backers said their man had gained just over the minimum 50 percent of votes needed to win. Their claim was supported by much of the international community.

On October 5, just three days before the run-off was to have taken place, hundreds of thousands of people -- angry at Milosevic's unwillingness to concede -- descended on Belgrade from around the country to demand that Milosevic finally step down.

The crowds stormed the federal parliament and Serbian state television. But what was remarkable about the protests was how peaceful they were. The police and army, although everywhere in evidence, offered minimal resistance and eventually threw their support behind the protesters.

The demonstrators taunted the police and accuse them of protecting Milosevic:

"You are protecting him [Milosevic]! Shame on you! Let's go, brothers-- come here, come [police] commander, come commander! Nobody will hurt you." In Washington, U.S. President Bill Clinton reflected the overwhelming sentiment of the international community in welcoming the protests. He said Milosevic had tried to steal the vote and that the people were simply demanding what was rightfully theirs:

"The people of Serbia have made their opinion clear -- they did it when they voted peacefully and quietly, now they're doing it in the streets because there's been an attempt to rob them of their vote. And I think that if the world community will just stand for freedom, stand for democracy, stand for the will of the people, I think that will prevail."

Milosevic resigned the next day (Friday, Oct 6) following a meeting with Kostunica and army chief of staff General Nebojsa Pavkovic. After initially resisting, Milosevic agreed to step down when it became clear he no longer had the support of the police, army or the constitutional court.

Kostunica was sworn into office on Saturday (Oct 7) and in the days after quickly began the difficult negotiations on a transitional government before Serbian parliamentary elections could be held on December 23. Early federal parliamentary elections are likely next year.

Milosevic meanwhile has confounded the pundits and remained at the head of his Socialist party, albeit keeping a relatively low profile. He confided to a television interviewer this month that he has a "clear conscience" and sleeps soundly at night. He expressed no regrets or remorse for the four conflicts in the Balkans in which he played a central role. In his words, "history will show that we did everything over the past 10 years to defend the national interests."

Since the Belgrade protests, the international community has moved quickly to welcome Yugoslavia into the fold. Yugoslavia regained membership in the UN and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It has also joined the Balkan Stability Pact, and this month (Dec 20) was expected to gain membership in the International Monetary Fund.

Yugoslavia applied for membership in the Council of Europe, which would bring the country under Europe's legally binding human-rights conventions. Kostunica and his allies have expressed a desire eventually to join the European Union.

Belgrade has also established diplomatic relations with former Yugoslav republics Bosnia and Slovenia,. It has restored the ties with the U.S., Britain, France and Germany that were cut after NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia during last year's Kosovo conflict.

Correspondents say that the one big foreign policy challenge remaining is what to do with Milosevic, who has been indicted by the UN's tribunal in The Hague for alleged war crimes committed last year in Kosovo.

Kostunica says he will not extradite Milosevic, but the international community can be expected to continue to exert pressure on the government to bring Milosevic to justice.

Kostunica also has to contend with the poor state of the economy. The infrastructure suffered extensive damage from 78 days of NATO air strikes last year. The jobless rate is among the highest in Europe and inflation continues to eat away at already low incomes.

In addition, the government faces a serious security challenge in Serbia's southern Presevo Valley, where an insurrection by ethnic Albanians has been underway for a year. The recently increased concentration of interior ministry troops with a record of violence against Albanians in Kosovo creates the potential for an explosive situation. Some officials have threatened a crackdown December 24 -- the day after Serb parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, relations between Serbia and Montenegro, its junior partner in federal Yugoslavia, remain uneasy.

Most Montenegrin political parties boycotted the September 24 vote after Milosevic in July ordered constitutional changes that diminished Montenegro's role in the federal parliament.

Many Montenegrins say they now support autonomy or independence from Serbia. Kostunica is on record as saying he does not support independence.

Montenegrin officials say they will hold a referendum on the issue sometime in 2001.

In November, Kostunica flew to the Montenegrin capital Podgorica with General Pavkovic and Serbia's likely next Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in a bid to defuse tensions. Djindjic later told RFE/RL the two sides found common ground:

"I'm very satisfied that Serbia and Montenegro finally agreed on certain reasonable fundamentals without (the need for) heightened emotions and without being mesmerized by the moment. We agreed on two things -- the priorities at present and the priorities of the future organization of our common state."