Over the past decade, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević has started—and lost—four wars, while bringing international sanctions that have destroyed the economy, standards of living and the good name of the Serbian people. Today, his popularity stands at an all-time low of 16 percent, while better than two-thirds of the population want to see a change in leadership.
In the best of all worlds, Milošević's Socialist-Yugoslav United Left (JUL)-Radical coalition would be quickly removed in the elections to be held this month—and it is this scenario in which the United States and its allies have placed their greatest hopes and resources. Yet, despite Vojislav Kostunica's current lead in the polls, many of the country's democratic opposition despair of ever voting Milošević out of office. Until recently, both domestic and foreign observers have readily blamed the self-inflicted impotence of their own leaders, who are bitterly divided by their own pretentious ambitions and petty jealousies. Hence, the US and its allies are prepared to wait for the next round of elections and blame Milošević's next triumph on the Serbs themselves.
In the meantime, they will patiently adhere to their interim strategy of isolation and containment, treating Serbia as the "hole in the donut" of surrounding Balkan states that are presently striving toward integration into Western Europe. Such a policy of unbenign neglect ignores the suffering of the Serbs themselves, but it corresponds to the relatively low priority that rump Yugoslavia holds for its own strategic interests.
A classic fascist state
Yet our awareness of these divisions should not prevent us from appreciating two less obvious—but far more significant—obstacles to evolutionary change within Serbia. Both Milošević's domestic and foreign adversaries have been slow to realize that a democratic change in government will never happen in a state where Milošević's nomenklatura control the media, make the election laws and count the votes. Serbia is, in fact, the classic example of a fascist state—like Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain or Galtieri's Argentina—that allows opposition media and parties to operate, but never to the point that they actually threaten the regime's hold on power.
No matter how high the opposition parties reach, the regime will always defeat them by raising the threshold just beyond their grasp. Every time they score a major victory, whether by gaining a key endorsement, staging a monster rally or launching a strike, Milošević simply strengthens his grip on power by further restricting their access to media and intensifying the carefully calibrated regime of intimidation that includes arrest, assault and assassination.
A well-provisioned patronage system
Like other authoritarian rulers, Milošević is sustained at the top by the cultivated self-interest of a well-provisioned patronage system of several thousand functionaries who control every facet of the government and economy. To maintain control, Milošević has readily pared the ranks of the nomenklatura by firing, and even jailing, insubordinate justices, police chiefs and military commanders. When necessary, Milošević has also expanded his base by co-opting members of the opposition, most notably the mercurial Vuk Drašković, who bolted from the Zajedno opposition coalition in July 1997 in exchange for a position in the ruling coalition and control over Belgrade's municipal government; to this day Drašković limits his commitment to the opposition because he is reluctant to risk the lucrative system of graft and patronage that he derives from his control over the capital.
In short, the opposition's impotence rests not so much in their lack of quantity, quality or unity, as it does in the determination of Milošević's patronage system to frustrate or intimidate them. So long as it remains confident in Milošević's grip on power, the existing party, administrative, police and military hierarchy will be able to turn back any challenge mounted by the opposition, whose occasional successes actually danger its own ranks more than Milošević. Hence, the mirage of Kostunica's candidacy, which the regime will neutralize either by cancelling, stealing or nullifying the elections, by arranging an unfortunate accident, or by reducing the Yugoslav presidency to its former impotence vis-á-vis Serbia.
A second key to Milošević's hold on power is the passive support of a silent majority of Serbs who tolerate the status quo, because they are presently incapable of making an informed choice. Much of the problem stems from over a century of myth-making that has conditioned Serbs to see themselves as historic victims of foreign enemies, against whom they have inevitably triumphed through an heroic stubbornness, or inat—hence, Milošević's ability to mobilize Serbs throughout the former Yugoslavia by appealing to their pre-conditioned, reflexive paranoia and hatred.
Opposition leaders are less surprised, attributing Milošević's resilience (and their own futility) to the mass ignorance of Serbian society, which one opposition leader bluntly characterizes as a "nation of peasants." Even before sanctions, only six percent of the population read newspapers. Several opposition figures cite a series of well-known (and possibly accurate) statistics about educational levels within Serbia: whereas three percent of adults have a university education, sixty percent have received no more (and often less) than eight years of primary schooling. Hence their suspicion that a significant proportion of the adult population is functionally illiterate, especially middle-aged Serbs whose education was interrupted by the Second World War and the immediate postwar period, but who presently constitute the country's patriarchy.
Such elementary education levels virtually foreclose the ability to question the veracity of government propaganda or to critically analyze evidence; they also explain the country's heavy reliance on state-controlled visual media for most of its information. Furthermore, they also suggest that, despite the best of intentions, Serbia's democratic opposition—and democracy itself—have limited prospects of success, so long as the regime retains a virtual monopoly on the transmission of visual media.
Given these obstacles, there are those who believe that only death will deliver Serbia and its neighbors from the bete noire of the Balkans. But what options are there for those who lack the stomach to sanction assassination or the patience to await a more natural demise?
Scenario I: war and occupation
For years, a small community of scholars, human rights activists and policy planners have insisted that Serbia can only undergo a thorough reorientation after military defeat and occupation. The prospects for such a scenario may have been greatest near the end of last spring's air war, when NATO commander Wesley Clark was days away from ordering a land invasion into Kosovo, which could have ultimately led to a parallel strike against Belgrade from the Vojvodina.
Although Milošević's belated capitulation forestalled the introduction of ground troops, top US officials concede that there remain contingency plans for military intervention in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.
But war and occupation represent the absolute worst-case scenario for NATO's military strategists and political leaders, none of whom care enough about Serbia and its people to risk the lives of their own soldiers in an invasion and equally troublesome occupation. Their extreme reluctance to intervene essentially leaves in Milošević's hands the option of creating another humanitarian crisis that would force NATO into a third military operation similar to those in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999—this time, involving ground troops.
If the US and its allies are to avoid such an unappetizing scenario, they should consider each of the remaining two options as holding open a finite window of opportunity that needs to be exploited if a military "solution" is to be avoided.
Scenario II: insurrection
A more likely and infinitely more preferable scenario would be Milošević's removal by domestic insurrection.
"No pain, no gain," says one high-ranking State Department official who readily discounts the prospects of an electoral transition. Such a resolution is easy to envision in countries such as the United States, France and Great Britain, each of which forged their own democratic systems through violent revolution. Yet nobody in Serbia talks about such a possibility—and with good reason.
Four decades of Communism have created the ultimate uncivil society incapable of taking responsibility for its own future, much as a century of ethnic narcissism has shifted the burden—and blame—onto other nations or nationalities. The notion of a "Serbian Liberation Army" thus remains beyond the comprehension of even the regime's most dedicated opponents, who remain steadfastly opposed to the thought of urban insurrection, let alone civil war.
Nobody wants to be the first revolutionary
Their refusal to contemplate urban insurrection or outright civil war stems both from an aversion to killing other Serbs—even those who brutally murdered so many non-Serbs over the past decade—and from fear of the personal danger involved. As one prominent opposition leader told me, "everyone wants to join a successful revolution, but nobody wants to be the first revolutionary."
Until recently, rump Yugoslavia's democratic opposition amused itself with fantastic notions of US intervention in default of any coercive domestic initiative to force Milošević from power; that is, Serb leaders both at home and abroad have often predicted with great confidence (and impatience) that the US could secure his downfall if it really desired. In November, Serbian opposition leaders meeting in Budapest argued that a stern threat, combined with a much-expanded proscription list, would cow Milošević's patronage network into removing him. To this day, many talk plaintively about the likely effectiveness of "a single cruise missile" or some other means of assassination, wholly without consideration for legal issues or (international) political consequences.
The missing military
This aura of sanctified helplessness apparently extends to the Serbian military. Milošević has minimized the chances of a military coup by both repeatedly purging top commanders and introducing political commissars to the ranks. On the other hand, most mid-level, mid-career officers harbor numerous grievances against Milošević.
The mutiny of a single Yugoslav Army (VJ) unit could have a domino effect within the military, especially if it began in a region where there was significant support from sympathetic civilian authorities, most evidently in Montenegro, but possibly in the municipalities of the Vojvodina, Čačak or Niš. Yet opposition leaders despair that the officer corps has "neither the intelligence nor the courage" to mutiny or launch a coup. Their assessment is shared by top intelligence officials at SHAPE headquarters, one of whom recently told me that, "You've already heard it from the Serbs; now you're hearing it from NATO: 'The army is not going to overthrow Milošević!'"
Scenario III: Implosion
The only realistic scenario for removing Milošević must address the underlying support that he receives from mass ignorance and elite patronage. Hence the need for an interdependent, two-pronged strategy that would require the cooperation of Milošević's foreign and domestic enemies.
Prong I: A visual media offensive
Aside from personal experience, visual media has been proven the most effective means of transmitting information and molding people's minds. This is a particularly sobering fact for historians, such as I, who anticipate that the celebrated triumph of written over visual / oral media around 1800 may have lasted less than two centuries.
To their credit, members of the Serbian opposition have identified access to visual media as an indispensable element in their attempt to bring democracy to Serbia. Thus, the head of one Vojvodina opposition party has been lobbying for the construction of a single "Clarity Television" broadcast facility in southern Hungary that could reach much of the Vojvodina. On the other end of Serbia, the head of Kosovo's Serbian Resistance Movement, Momčilo Trajković, expresses a desire to build a television tower in northern Kosovo from which to reach southern Serbia; yet, despite repeated trips to Washington, he and his close ally, Bishop Artemije, have not even been able to get sufficient funding or clearance for TV and radio facilities to compete with the numerous broadcast facilities controlled by Milošević.
Proponents of a visual media offensive recognize the need to staff all programs with indigenous, readily identifiable opposition figures who might have to forego returning to Serbia so long as the current regime remains in power. They also appreciate the advantage of additional installations along Serbia's periphery that could blanket most of the country, bringing the heretofore silent, stoic majority of the population face-to-face with the factual record of orchestrated atrocities, military defeats, demographic losses, economic decline, rampant corruption and international condemnation that Serbia has endured over the past decade.
Such a strategy offers several advantages for Western policymakers: it is less coercive, intrusive and expensive than other policy options, employs Serbian citizens and does not exclude the parallel employment of other initiatives. And, perhaps most importantly, it services both the immediate, tactical objective of replacing the present regime, while also addressing the longer-term quest for a systemic solution to the problem of Serbian cultural malaise even before Milošević's removal.
Prong II: Creating a patronage alternative
Despite its merits, a visual media blitz would not address Milošević's residual control over Serbia's élite, which is motivated primarily by fear (of lost patronage), rather than love (or any measure of trust or respect).
The present US tactic of proscribing members of Milošević's patronage network represents a crucial step in the process of devaluing the currency of loyalty to the regime, but does not offer sufficient disincentives for securing their defection. It should, therefore, be supplemented with a second initiative, namely the establishment of a Yugoslav National Council (JNC) that would be recognized and treated as the sole legitimate representative of the Yugoslav peoples.
Such a body would not be without historical precedent. During the Second World War, the Axis occupation of most of the continent spawned a half dozen "governments-in-exile," including one from the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps a more appropriate model would be the Polish, Czech and Yugoslav "national councils" that were formed during the First World War and ultimately recognized by the Allied powers. But a JNC would have an advantage over both models, in that it would already exercise at least some authority in both Montenegro and Kosovo.
A legal vehicle
Formal, international recognition of the JNC as the sole, legitimate representative of the Yugoslav peoples would pay immediate, multiple dividends. Once and for all, the US and European Union (EU) would be relieved of the necessity of dealing with a regime run by indicted war criminals who have repeatedly used any and all contacts with the international community to legitimize its existence.
Within Kosovo, the JNC would provide the UN/NATO condominium with an ostensibly legal vehicle for marginalizing and, perhaps, removing those Milošević loyalists who currently control local government, patronage and the media, while jump-starting efforts to empower moderate political leaders like Artemije and Trajković. Indeed, by working through the JNC, NATO could even honor its commitment to reintroduce limited Yugoslav police and military forces without admitting Milošević-controlled elements dedicated to undermining the international presence there.
Montenegro's recognition of the JNC as rump Yugoslavia's sole governing authority would enable the Đukanović regime to end all contact with the regime in Belgrade, while easing tensions within the republic by simultaneously reaffirming—at least for the time being—its commitment to the Yugoslav federation.
The JNC could also secure a transparent, yet non-controversial source of income for funding its operations by negotiating licensing fees for access to TV and radio broadcast frequencies, or even by taking formal control of FRY assets abroad. Access to funding would enable Montenegro, the Kosovo Serbs and members of the Serbian Diaspora to affect claims to sovereignty within a common Yugoslav framework by creating shadow embassies / consulates, issuing exit visas for FRY residents wishing to travel abroad and gaining admission to international organizations from which rump Yugoslavia and Serbia have been heretofore excluded.
Jumping before the ship sinks
Once invested with the instruments and income of a provisional government, the JNC could establish an alternative patronage system by staffing its own foreign-based embassies, IGO delegations and broadcast facilities, all of which could serve as a magnet for the multitude of dissatisfied officials who would consider abandoning Milošević's crippled ship of state if—and only if—there is a safe place to jump before it sinks.
The incremental, visual transmission of news about the successes of the JNC and the defections from Milošević's camp would be carefully timed and packaged to give the necessary momentum to a "psychosis of transition" within his patronage system that could quickly lead to regime's collapse.
Indeed, if the establishment, recognition and investment of a Yugoslav National Council were instrumental in delegitimizing the Milošević regime, it would have an effect comparable to the First World War Allies' belated recognition of the Polish and Czech national councils in the closing months of the conflict, the bestowal of which quickly persuaded the ruler and statesmen of Austria-Hungary that their state had ceased to exist. And, as in 1918, its establishment prior this critical transition would bequeath on the new Yugoslavia a widely recognized successor government comprising moderate, democratic leaders acceptable to the international community.
Looking beyond Milošević
Its incumbency would help insure an orderly transfer of authority without civil war, while simultaneously excluding unrepentant nationalists bent on perpetuating the quest for a Greater Serbia—and the horrendous crimes committed on its behalf. In this way, both the JNC and the concurrent visual media offensive look beyond the immediate problem of Milošević to the all-important aftermath of his overthrow. In short, a JNC would strike at the weak link in Milošević's chain of command—those supremely amoral but rational men around him who are not tied by any bonds stronger than the access to power and wealth that his patronage brings and who will desert him only after they perceive defection to be in their best interest. Of course, Milošević and his wife would hold out to the last, together with those of their closest associates who are most deeply implicated in a decade of crimes against the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. And they would go to The Hague.
Charles Ingrao, 4 September 2000
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