Yugoslavia’s Moment of Truth

September 23, 2000 • Commentary

There is a widespread and understandable fear in Yugoslavia that president Slobodan Milosevic, who is trailing in opinion polls, will resort to fraud and violence to undermine this weekend’s elections. The leading opposition candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, suspects that Milosevic is “preparing the theft of the century” and will rig the vote. Another opposition candidate, Vojislav Mihailovic, warns that Milosevic may “provoke a major incident or a series of incidents, declare the elections irregular and stop them.”

Milosevic’s strategy, however, may be more subtle than that. After all, he knows that eight years of Western sanctions and 11 weeks of NATO bombing have exhausted and demoralized many Yugoslavs. He may therefore decide to drag out the political process to capitalize on the fatigue and self‐​doubt engendered by Washington’s shortsighted policies. One possible scenario: Milosevic loses the election, but doesn’t transfer power for months. During that time he lets Yugoslavia’s stagnation frustrate the president-elect’s momentum while maneuvering himself into the more powerful position of prime minister.

Another scenario: Milosevic invalidates or cancels the presidential election and reschedules it for some future date. When no single candidate receives a majority of the vote in the rescheduled election, he schedules yet another election, a run‐​off between himself and the other top vote getter. By that time, voter turnout and the opposition’s morale may be so diminished that Milosevic will need only steal a few votes to stay in power.

Either scenario would fit Milosevic’s pattern of using Washington’s policies to leverage his own position. He has routinely discredited his opponents as traitors or foreign puppets because Washington has embraced them too closely. Wary of that possibility, Kostunica has pledged not to take any money from Washington and has harshly criticized the U.S. State Department’s decision to establish an office in neighboring Hungary to support Milosevic’s challengers. That U.S. intervention amounts to “flagrant interference in the internal affairs” of Yugoslavia, Kostunica says, and it may be “the kiss of death for all truly democratic and patriotic forces.” The State Department response: Kostunica “is entitled to his opinions” but that “doesn’t mean that we have to agree with him.”

Washington’s efforts to manipulate the election have had dubious effect. The Washington Post recently published a front‐​page story about how the Hungary office is only a small part of a $77 million U.S. effort to support everything from student groups and labor unions to independent media outlets and rock bands that perform get‐​out‐​the‐​vote concerts. Milosevic couldn’t have asked for better grist for his anti‐​opposition propaganda mill in the final days before the election. Yugoslav state media have featured the story prominently, and Milosevic officials cited it as proof that the opposition’s leaders are simply Washington’s stooges. Kostunica could only grimace at the timing.

Other Washington policies have also repeatedly undermined Yugoslavia’s democratic opposition. Years of sanctions have eviscerated the middle class and the private sector, ruining the opposition’s natural financial base. What’s more, sanctions have made the tools of political organization — computers, copying machines, etc. — difficult to acquire. Sanctions also encouraged many of Yugoslavia’s young people to emigrate, draining the country of those most receptive to democratic change.

NATO’s bombing had a deleterious effect on the democratic opposition, too, giving Milosevic a pretext to crack down on his political rivals and the independent media. It also made it more difficult for the opposition to promote the values associated with the West, whose bombs wounded and killed thousands Yugoslavs.

At the same time, many of Washington’s policies have created strong incentives for Milosevic to resist giving up power. For example, sanctions have made Milosevic incredibly rich because of his involvement in illegal smuggling. Leaving power would mean derailing his money train, a prospect he is likely to resist.

Washington’s decision to push for Milosevic’s indictment as an international war criminal has created another incentive for him stay in power, since losing the election could lead to his eventual imprisonment. Many Yugoslavs complain that the indictment means that they are now stuck with Milosevic as leader‐​for‐​life, and presidential challenger Kostunica says the indictment was “as mindless as last year’s NATO bombing.”

If the opposition should still manage to prevail over Milosevic, Washington will no doubt congratulate itself. But the truth should be known: A change of government in Yugoslavia, should it come to pass, will be in spite of Washington’s policies, not because of them.

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