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Yugoslavia: Serbia's Problem Is More Than Just Milosevic

The ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is the top priority of the Serbian opposition and of NATO countries. But with the opposition divided and the president's cronies still powerful, RFE/RL analyst Patrick Moore says the end of Milosevic's power would hardly be the end of Serbia's problems -- or of other countries' problems with Serbia.

Prague, 27 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The removal of the man most responsible for the destruction of Tito's state and for four bloody wars will be a great step forward. Yet once Milosevic is removed -- however that may come about -- there remains the matter of his henchmen. The approximate number of members of Milosevic's elite can be gauged by the number of prominent men and women from Serbia and Montenegro who are banned from receiving EU visas, some 300 people. Particularly important are the four men whom the Hague-based war crimes tribunal indicted in May along with the Yugoslav president.

The opposition Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), among others, is counting on peacefully undermining Milosevic by appealing to some members of his power structure to save their own skins and defect to the opposition. There was much speculation at the end of the summer that no less a person than Serbian President Milan Milutinovic -- who is one of the four indicted war criminals -- may have unsuccessfully tried to do just that. Meanwhile, any successful defections remain very cleverly concealed.

And even if the fractious opposition of some 150 parties and 800 NGOs were to oust Milosevic along with the most die-hard of his lieutenants, there is no telling what it would put in their place. The opposition, with its squabbling egos, took weeks to agree on a common platform on the vital issue of elections -- the first such agreement in 10 years. Party leaders still fight among themselves over matters such as who will march or speak at whose rally and who will speak before whom.

Thus, there is little chance that the rise to power of the opposition will prove a panacea for Serbia's ills. The squabbling that beset the Slovak cabinet once former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar was out of the way offers a possible example of what might come to pass in a post-Milosevic Serbia.

In all likelihood, Serbia's problem has less to do with the presence of one man than with the nature of its political culture. One aspect is the tendency to rely on strong leaders. Even foreign observers fall prey to this approach when they bemoan the lack of "an alternative" to Milosevic -- meaning another strongman. Democracy, however, grows from the bottom up. The real alternative to "caudillo" rule is likely to come from the opposition-run cities and towns and their mayors and other elected officials. It is there that Western countries have wisely begun to concentrate their hopes and attention, not on the well-known egos of Belgrade.

Another issue in the political culture is the all-pervasiveness of nationalism. Many of his once-fervent supporters have turned on Milosevic, not because they have become good democrats, but because he failed to live up to his promises to create a Greater Serbia. He is responsible for a disaster for the Serbian people, in terms of territorial losses and migrations of Biblical proportions. It is primarily because of this that many opposition politicians seek his ouster. It is difficult to say how much peace and progress in the Balkans one could hope for if disgruntled nationalists are in power in Serbia.

A third problem is the lack of civic consciousness. Many among the ranks of the opposition and intellectuals provide good examples of political immaturity. In the course of the Milosevic years, many Western governments and NGOs have spent tidy sums supporting Serbian NGOs and the independent media. But when Milosevic launched his full-fledged campaign of genocide in Kosovo this spring, the private media for the most part censored themselves or generally fell into line. It is true that one could not expect them to write editorials in praise of NATO air raids or the Kosovo Liberation Army. But it is telling that barely three dozen individuals were willing to sign a document that, though repeatedly slamming NATO, dared to criticize the genocide in one short passage.

At a recent conference in Montenegro sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), several leading figures from the Serbian private media showed a high degree of defensiveness when Westerners criticized them for their docility during the genocide. Some of the journalists showed touches of the paranoia and xenophobia that are characteristic of the regime. Knee-jerk mistrust of the major powers -- the United States in particular -- has never been far beneath the surface in Serbia.

Perhaps the best that will come of gatherings such as the OSCE one is what an observer called the beginnings of a "thinking process" on the part of the Serbian intellectuals, opposition politicians, and journalists regarding their roles and responsibilities. This could lead to what some observers have called a "cleansing" or "denazification" of public life. Similar reflection by those foreigners who would promote the democratization of Serbia might also be of value. Perhaps they should not expect too much too soon from a society imbued with authoritarianism and nationalism, and where the average per capita income is $50 per month.