Slobodan Milosevic’s 13-year rule over Yugoslavia has finally come to an end. Opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica, who defeated him in a controversy-ridden presidential election last month, was inaugurated as the country’s new president over the weekend. But who is Vojislav Kostunica? And is the Clinton administration justified in taking any credit for his victory?
Born in Belgrade in 1944, Vojislav Kostunica was the only son of a Yugoslav Supreme Court judge who was purged from the bench when the Communist Party took over Yugoslavia after World War II. After graduating from law school and receiving a doctorate in constitutional law, he joined the faculty at Belgrade University, but in 1974 suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Communist Party as did his father—he was purged from the university for criticizing the communist government’s new federal constitution. Eventually, Kostunica gained employment at a Belgrade think tank, the Institute of Social Studies. In 1983, he co-authored a legal study on the superiority of multi-party democracy over communist systems. He also wrote the first Serbian-language translation of the Federalist Papers.
By the late 1980s Kostunica had co-founded the Democratic Party. In the wake of anti-government demonstrations in March 1991 and the Milosevic regime’s cruel crackdown on the protestors, considerable differences in terms of programs and tactics emerged within the Democratic Party. The party split into two wings, one of which was led by Kostunica. Kostunica’s wing believed that any collaboration with the Milosevic regime was impossible, and in July 1992 he formally broke away from the Democratic Party to start his own political party, the Democratic Party of Serbia.
His new party promoted anti-communism, civil society, and democracy as its core principles. The party’s program supported the territorial integrity of Yugoslavia and the regionalization of Serbia as a possible solution to Albanian separatism in Kosovo. The party also supported constitutional changes to reduce the prospect of civil war with Montenegro, Serbia’s independence-minded junior partner in Yugoslavia. In August 2000, Kostunica was selected by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, an alliance of 18 opposition political parties and one trade union, to be their candidate to run against Milosevic.
On September 24, Kostunica beat Milosevic at the polls with 52 percent of the vote. No matter—Yugoslavia’s State Election Commission, stacked with Milosevic appointees, decided that Kostunica had only won 48 percent of the vote, and ordered a runoff election between him and Milosevic. A week and a half later, Yugoslavia’s Constitutional Court, also stacked with Milosevic appointees, nullified the presidential election altogether and said Milosevic could stay in power until next July. In exasperation, hundreds of thousands of Serbs took to the streets to oust Milosevic.
The response from the Clinton administration and some Republicans has been self-congratulatory backslapping, as if American policy had been decisive in ensuring a Kostunica victory. Yet Kostunica has directed consistent criticism at the Clinton administration for backing policies that have undermined Yugoslavia’s democratic opposition.
Earlier this year, for example, Kostunica lamented that the “consequences of Western policy, above all of the American policy, are objectively such that … they are more helpful to Slobodan Milosevic than to his opponents.” For example, he explained, the Western bombs that wounded and killed thousands of Yugoslav civilians living nowhere near Kosovo made it more difficult to promote Western values. It also gave Milosevic a national security pretext to crack down on Yugoslavia’s democratic forces. Furthermore, when Washington announced in August that it would open an office in Hungary to support the democratic opposition in Yugoslavia, Kostunica protested that Milosevic would use the announcement to propagandize that the opposition was in Washington’s back pocket. Milosevic did just that, boosting his numbers in the days preceding the election.
Most destructively, Washington’s decade-long imposition of sanctions eviscerated Yugoslavia’s private sector and impoverished its middle class, thus ruining the democratic opposition’s natural financial base. The sanctions also encouraged many of Yugoslavia’s young people to leave the country, draining it of those most open to democratic change.
That dubious track record notwithstanding, the Clinton administration and its supporters seem determined to continue their habit of undermining Yugoslavia’s democratic forces. The administration’s strategy is apparently aimed at keeping certain sanctions in place until Kostunica complies with numerous strictures from Washington, such as acquiescing to Clinton’s flawed Bosnia and Kosovo policies. These demands are non-starters for Kostunica, and so Washington may end up penalizing Yugoslavia’s victorious democrats. Milosevic can only be laughing at that prospect.