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Serbia: The First Colored Revolution?

By Nenad Pejic Otpor protesters in Belgrade (AFP) "Slobo, save Serbia," groups of youths could be heard chanting in the streets of Belgrade in September 2000. "Kill yourself!"

The chant, referring to frequent suicides in the family of President Slobodan Milosevic, came from Otpor, a group of reform-minded young people that claimed 100,000 registered members. On October 5, amid massive public protests, the dictator fell. Songs of jubilation echoed through Belgrade, sighs of relief through Brussels. The most dangerous man in Europe was gone; democracy -- in the form of Zoran Djindjic, soon to become prime minister -- had won.

In the years that followed, similar scenarios played out in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan; the Otpor model saw its tactics adopted by groups like Pora, Kmara, and KelKel. In many ways, the public protests leading to Milosevic's ouster can be considered the "first" colored revolution. Its roots, however, sprang from a different geopolitical reality, and its conclusion came too soon. If and when Serbia lives through a new revolution, the world -- and Serbia's place in it -- will be far different.

In 2000, as Otpor was gathering strength, the United States still had the time and energy to deal with global issues. Russia, by contrast, was recovering from the 1998 ruble collapse and still relatively weak. Throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, emerging democracies were turning away from the East and running at full speed toward the West, NATO, and the European Union.

Everything that's happened since -- the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. war on terror, a resurgent Russia, skyrocketing energy costs -- has changed the playing field. In March 2003, the dream of a reformist, pro-Western Serbia died along with Djindjic, slain by an unrepentant gunman with ties to the Milosevic regime. Djindjic's successor, Vojislav Kostunica, has since become the symbol of a conservative Serbia, with strong links to the Orthodox Church and chilly regard for the West.

Elsewhere, Greater Success

No assassinations have cut short the democratic experiments of the other colored revolutions. But their progress raises inevitable questions about where Serbia would be now had Djindjic not been killed.

Within a year of Djindjic's death, Mikheil Saakashvili was flying high in Georgia. With 96 percent of the vote in the presidential election that followed the Rose Revolution, he quickly began vigorous reforms. Georgia was seen as a symbol of change; a vanguard in the drive to escape Moscow's orbit. Saakashvili was hailed as a political dynamo and charismatic charmer.

But if the outside world was captivated, inside, Georgians were in for a letdown. Saakashvili, dazzled by constant praise, was blind to reality at home. He saw things that didn't exist, and failed to see that which was obvious. By November 2007, however, that reality had become hard to deny: tens of thousands of protesters had gathered in central Tbilisi, demanding his resignation. His hard-line response -- tear gas, state of emergency, media blackout -- forced many outside the country to reexamine their affection for the Georgian president.

Today, he remains in office, having secured a second term with a far weaker mandate and a nascent opposition on the rise. The period of one-man reforms is over, replaced by a less certain, perhaps more democratic, political process.

What if Zoran Djindjic had lived? (epa)

It's a fate somewhat similar to that of Ukraine, which has spent the past three years trying to burnish its "orange" credentials after the heady optimism of the 2004 pro-democracy revolution went south. During the early days following the Orange Revolution protests, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, as president and prime minister, seemed to have been handed a blank check. Foreign experts enthused that "democracy in Russia goes via Ukraine."

But once the honeymoon was over, the two Orange protagonists found the day-to-day reality of their political marriage hard to endure. Quarrels took precedence over reforms; public support began to dim. The grand villain of 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, staged a political comeback in parliamentary elections hailed as the cleanest and freest the country had seen. Now, with another legislative vote behind them, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko once again have an opportunity to advance Ukraine's democratic agenda. It remains to be seen if they can succeed in putting their personal problems aside for the sake of getting things done.

Kyrgyzstan's Tulip Revolution in 2005 strengthened that country's parliamentary democracy and served notice to Central Asia's entrenched leaders that change was in the air. But there, as elsewhere, early enthusiasm soon gave way to political infighting.

Ak Jol, the party of Kyrgyzstan's postrevolution president, Kurmanbek Bakiev, by December 2007 had won all but 11 of 90 parliamentary seats, amid a media clampdown and claims of dirty tricks. Some blame the West for the relative failure of the Tulip events; unlike Georgia and Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan received not a single Western leader in the wake of its revolution. Russian officials, by contrast, were plentiful.

Frozen In Time

In October 2000, Serbia was far ahead of Georgia and Ukraine in its progress toward Western integration. That chance has been missed; democratically, it is now the laggard. Unlike the colored-revolution countries, no single, charismatic individual has dominated Serbia's political scene since Djindjic's death. There has been no equivalent of Saakashvili or Tymoshenko with the strength to set Serbia on a definitive path.

While those countries have, with varying degrees of success, made the transition from personality- to process-based government, Serbia remains mired in contradictory political impulses. As presidential elections approach on January 20, it finds itself at a crossroads: will it head East, West, or just deeper within itself?

The three main figures -- President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Kostunica, and Tomislav Nikolic, the head of the dominant Serbian Radical Party -- all have very different, often incompatible views of what the country should become. At least two of the three -- Kostunica and Nikolic -- would rather see Serbia in Russia's sphere of influence and consider NATO membership anathema. Tadic is clear about his wish to see Serbia in the EU, but the overwhelming political sentiment in Serbia is one of looking to the past, rather than the future.

Pro-Western reforms have been thrown out, replaced by nationalist rhetoric very much in the Milosevic mold. The former Yugoslavia has continued its disintegration, with Montenegro declaring independence and Kosovo, by all appearances, soon to follow. When the collapse of the former Yugoslavia began in 1989, Serbia's per capita GDP was $3,000 and Slovenia's was $5,000. Today, Ljubljana is in the EU and per capita GDP has shot up to $23,000. In Serbia, amazingly, the figure remains largely unchanged since 1989.

This weekend's contest will pit Tadic, Djindjic's pro-European successor as head of the Democratic Party, against Nikolic, a fervent nationalist. A second round is likely, and likely to favor Nikolic. Kostunica will support neither Tadic nor Nikolic in the first round, and has been cagey about whom he'd back in a second. For supporters of a Western future for Serbia, the prognosis at time looks dim.

It took a generation of 20-year-olds with no manifesto or leader to shake Serbia out of its lethargy the first time around. Armed only with slogans and spray paint, they dealt a fatal blow to a dictatorship. Milosevic died in a jail cell in The Hague, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity. But Serbia remains largely unchanged. His great supporter, Radical Party founder Vojislav Seselj, himself remains in a Hague cell, even as his party's candidate, Nikolic, may well win the presidential ballot.

Is a new generation of 20-year-olds waiting in the wings? What will be their color of choice?

(Nenad Pejic is RFE/RL associate director of broadcasting)