"It was the last East European Communist domino to fall," John Simpson, the BBC's venerable World Affairs Editor, has written, "but it happened to the same accompaniment as all the others, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Russia itself."
He goes on to cite "the same whistles and plastic trumpets, the same loud chanting, the same belief that because so many people were out in the streets they must be invincible..."
Simpson's comparison was echoed by US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said the uprising in Belgrade "evoked the fall of the Berlin Wall." And, judging from the coverage beamed by satellite into this part of the world from Western Europe and North America, that notion is widely held.
It is just as widely wrong and dangerous, based on factual inaccuracies and lulling the people of Serbia and the wider world alike into a false sense of triumphalism and security—a sense not enjoyed by Serbia's neighbors here in Southeastern Europe. As Croats, Kosovars, Bosnians and Montenegrins know too well, the revolution remains (as of this writing) incomplete: Slobodan Milošević's power base is now Vojislav Koštunica's and Serbia is still nationalist.
Never just another "Communist domino"
The Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ), of which Serbia was a constituent republic, and the present-day Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which Serbia dominates, have never been just another set of "Communist dominoes" whose fall has eagerly been anticipated by the "liberal-democratic capitalist West."
The "domino theory" was first advanced in the early days of the Cold War by the Truman administration, embraced and articulated in a now (in)famous National Security Council document referred to as "NSC-68." Very roughly speaking, it held that if one nation of even peripheral or marginal interest to US foreign policy "went Red," the threat to other, more vital nations increased.
Whether or not this gave rise to a policy of "liberating" nations from Communism is hotly debated in American foreign policy circles. Still, even if we assume that the American-led West sought to liberate nations behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia was never included in the policy.
Even before Tito's break with Stalin and search for his own path toward Socialist utopia, American and Western European nations realized that there was something different about Yugoslavia. Happy to have Tito outside the Soviet orbit but not quite ready to embrace a Socialist dictatorship, the West propped up Tito's regime with generous financial aid—both direct and through international financial institutions—that continued well beyond Tito's death.
A new message in 1989?
That this perception dominated the Western approach to Yugoslavia was underscored by Warren Zimmerman, America's last ambassador to the SFRJ, in his 1996 memoir (subsequently revised and updated to jump onto the Kosovo bandwagon). Describing his discussions with Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Zimmerman recounts that:
...Yugoslavia and the Balkans remained important to US interests, but Yugoslavia no longer enjoyed its former geopolitical significance as a balance between [NATO] and the Warsaw Pact. It was no longer unique, since both Poland and Hungary now had more open political and economic systems... I would reassert... the traditional mantra of US policy toward Yugoslavia—our support of its unity, independence and territorial integrity. But I would add that we could only support the country's unity in the context of progress toward democracy. [Warren Zimmerman, Origins of a Catastrophe, New York, Times Books, 1999, pp 7-8]
Clearly, then, it was never a domino whose fall we awaited and, as subsequent developments illustrated, Western nations did little to nothing to support democracy in Yugoslavia until the aftermath of war in Kosovo.
Slobodan Milošević was, at first, supported in his efforts to hold the SFRJ together. Although they knew full well this could lead to the use of force (as a CIA analysis leaked to The New York Times noted), Western nations were too preoccupied with transition in CEE, the Gulf War and its aftermath, and the fate of the Soviet Union to pay much heed.
Later, despite ample evidence of his misdeeds in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, his influence over the Bosnian Serbs was sufficient for Western nations to declare Milošević a guarantor of the Dayton Peace Accords.
Tacit support for Milošević continued until the aftermath of war in Kosovo, when training in Budapest and financial and political support for opposition forces were in the offing. Until that point, however, we did not anxiously await the downfall of the last European strongman, largely for fear that his replacement would have been even more stridently nationalistic; the deranged Vojislav Šešelj was the most oft-used boogeyman used to underscore the importance of a hands-off approach to Milošević's claim to power.
But, damnit, they voted for him!
Simpson's claim that Yugoslavia was just the last Communist domino to fall is thus troubling, but perhaps more in the post facto and moral apportionment of responsibility to which historians and activists are given. Far more troubling is the increasingly common view that the mutant force behind Serbia's dysfunctional behaviour and appetite for carnage was the essentially fictional Communism/Socialism imposed by one man and his band of thugs.
It was a notion, underscored as I wrote the paragraph above, by the anchor of BBC's "This Week," who claimed that "people power" had ousted the "old-style Socialist" Slobodan Milošević in favour of the democratically elected Vojislav Koštunica who, as I write, is one hour away from being sworn in as President. Earlier Saturday, a CNN commentator was just as triumphant in declaring that Europe had been "swept of its last vestige of Communism."
The fallacy that Milošević was little more than an authoritarian Communist dictator was underscored by an Otpor activist whom I met here in Zagreb some months ago. Speaking of the opposition's campaigns past, he expressed anger at his fellow Serbs' "sheep-like" behaviour. "But, damnit, they voted for him!" he said in English after pointing to activist messages that had highlighted the ruin Milošević had wrought on Serbia.
Since his rise to power on 1987, Slobodan Milošević has justifiably been able to claim to have been a "democratically" elected leader. Although he frequently relied on electoral fraud in the twilight of his rule, Milošević rose to power and maintained his position through the ballot box. Even when electoral fraud is considered, state-run and independent polls alike may have differed on how much support Slobo enjoyed, but virtually all were unanimous in revealing that until early to mid summer, the strongman remained the nation's most popular politician.
The uprising of the countryside
Beyond the thousands loyal to him for the sole fact that he allowed them to enrich themselves at the expense of the average Serb, Milošević's primary constituency comprised the ranks of the poor, the rural and the uneducated. Even before the first mass anti-regime demonstrations in 1991, opposition to his message of nationalist (not Communist) hate was primarily found among youth and the educated middle-class elite in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš and other urban centres.
What was different this time around was that Milošević's primary voter base turned against him, first at the ballot box two weekends ago, then this past Thursday on the streets of Belgrade. Otpor and the, at last unified, Democratic Opposition of Serbia may have provided the organizing kernel, but what finally swamped the regime were lines of cars stretching for 37 kilometers from the countryside to Belgrade, pouring at least half a million largely rural protesters onto the capital's streets.
The DOS-led national strike may have sparked it all, but those who had previously been stalwart in their support of the regime supported the strike. Garbage piled up on the streets as sanitation workers stayed home, transit workers refused to report to work, and (most significantly) 4500 coal miners in Kolubara downed their picks, leading to rotating blackouts as they strangled the Obrenovac power plant, which provides at least half of Serbia's power needs.
The army and police was the final pillar of support for the Milošević regime. When their apparently overwhelming vote for Koštunica in the presidential elections is considered, it is clear that the new president has inherited much of Milošević's power base.
In the Central and Eastern European revolutions a decade ago, dissident forces were swept to power with programs and national visions that, by and large, differed wildly from the regimes they overthrew. That is not the case with Vojislav Koštunica and the "people's uprising" that swept him to power.
The groups casting their ballots for Koštunica did so because he promised a little bit of change and a lot of continuity: change with promises of revitalizing the economy, but his message of Serbian nationalism was continuous with Milošević's earlier (failed) promises of Greater Serbia.
Even allowing for exaggeration for the electorate's benefit, it is clear that Vojislav Koštunica remains as committed a nationalist as he was in his 1970s opposition to Tito and his late-1980s opposition to Milošević. If anything, he is a "true" nationalist in comparison with the just deposed president, whose nationalism was merely the vehicle used to satiate his thirst for power.
In short order, Koštunica has promised Slobodan Milošević that he will not be given a one-way ticket to the Hague and is believed to have promised the Yugoslav Army (VJ) that he will oppose any and all cooperation with the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) in favour of domestic court proceedings. Renewing Serbia's claim to Kosovo, he has rejected the helping hand offered by the United States (at least rhetorically—in fact, he is not likely to reject reconstruction aid) and condemned NATO, at the same time identifying Serbia's allies as France, Greece and Norway. This, he hopes, will help usher Serbia into the New Europe.
Vojislav Koštunica is presently caught between the proverbial "rock and a hard place": nationalist demands and expectations at home and the liberal-democratic conditions for outside assistance. In an ideal world, Misha Glenny would be right in saying, in this weekend's The New York Times, that "strident proclamations... are simply counterproductive. For the moment, everybody's overriding interest must be to assist Serbia's new leader as he tries to consolidate his authority and build a stable government..."
But Serbia is not an ideal world and, far from Simpson's claims, the revolution is incomplete. In that sense the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Tony Borden, who has done heavy "talking head" duty over the past few days, offers a far more realistic appraisal. To draw on another American metaphor, the West should "walk softly and carry a big stick," offering concrete aid only as Koštunica fulfills set conditions.
The European Union will, as you read this, be in the process of lifting sanctions on Serbia. A good first move, but any other assistance must be tied to a list of conditions: remove the Karić family's industrial and smuggling base, and we'll prop up the Dinar; find Radovan Karadžić and hand him over to the ICTY, and we'll reopen an embassy for more talks; remove...
Only then may we say that the operation to remove the nationalist cancer from the heart of Southeast Europe has truly begun.
Patrick FitzPatrick, 7 October 2000
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