World

Day of Reckoning

Barry Came October 9 2000
World

Day of Reckoning

Barry Came October 9 2000

Day of Reckoning

World

Barry Came

The woman’s scowl is as dark as her widows weeds. She is old, almost old enough to recall Cetinje's past glory, when the city in the mountains served as the royal capital of the Kingdom of Crna Gora, better known to the outside world by its Italian translation as Montenegro. But on this late afternoon, the widow is occupied by present woes—embodied by the five men crowded into the two rooms of her tiny apartment, hastily improvised into a polling station. The men are election officials, appointed by the authorities in faraway Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and they do not want to give a visitor their names. “If my husband was still alive,” the woman hisses, her voice dripping with contempt, “he would not be afraid to give his name.” She turns her attention to the visitor, offers a sweetcake and a pun, a play on the words in the name of her rugged native land. “These are black days on the black mountain.” Jittery ones at least, certainly for the 650,000 inhabitants

of Montenegro, trapped in an uneasy—and unequal— federation with Serbia in all that is left of Yugoslavia. Even more so, perhaps, for any government functionary remotely connected with the tottering regime of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. For long in advance of the outcome of the Sept. 24 elections, it was readily apparent that momentous events were about to unfold in the troubled Balkan country that Milosevic has ruled with an often bloody hand for the past 13 years. Those five nervous electoral officers in the old womans apartment in Cetinje clearly sensed the imminent arrival of unsettling developments with incalculable consequences. “Of course were worried,” one later admitted over a cup of bitter Turkish coffee in a nearby sidewalk café. “Nobody knows what will happen if what we are seeing here is the beginning of the end of Milosevic.”

When the votes were finally tallied, that did indeed appear to be the result of the elections. To his own dismay, and to the increasing desperation of his entourage, Milosevic found that

he had been beaten in the race for Yugoslavia’s presidency by a previously obscure 56-year-old constitutional lawyer from Belgrade, Vojislav Kostunica. Supported by an 18-party coalition of Serbian opposition parties, Kostunica soundly trounced Milosevic. By precisely how many votes depends on whose count is ultimately accepted. According to Kostunica’s Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition, the Belgrade lawyer won 55 per cent of the vote in the five-way presidential race to Milosevic’s 37 per cent. Yugoslavia’s Federal Election Commission—a body dominated by Milosevic loyalists—disputed those figures. It took the federal commission four days to release official results, raising widespread suspicion that the vote had been manipulated. But the commission finally announced that Kostunica had won 49 per cent of the vote and Milosevic 39 per cent, thereby necessitating an Oct. 8 runoff election on the grounds that neither candidate received the constitutionally required 50 per cent of the votes.

Kostunica and his allies cried foul, vowed to boycott any runoff and called for a massive general strike. More than 200,000 Kostunica supporters took to the streets in Belgrade on Sept. 27 to back the position. They gathered in the Yugoslav capital’s Republik Square in what was billed as the largest-ever opposition rally in the country. It was a joyous occasion carried out in defiance of warnings from Milosevic’s all-powerful police. Teenagers hung from trees and scaled large buildings, waving Serbian flags and setting off firecrackers. The crowds shook thousands of infant rattles, brandishing leaflets proclaiming that Milosevic had been “broken like a baby’s rattle.” And they cheered loudest when Kostunica appeared on a huge stage to declare: “We are fighting for democracy. Democracy is about truth. The truth is that we have won the election and they have lost.”

Foreign leaders soon weighed in with their own calculated gestures of backing. “It appears from a distance that they had a free election and somebody is trying to take it away from them,” said U.S. President Bill Clinton. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was more blunt. “You lost,” he told Milosevic. “Go.” French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and European Union Executive Commission President Romano Prodi all expressed similar sentiments. Significantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin remained silent, a move widely interpreted as indicating

that Milosevic cannot expect much support from longtime ally Moscow, where his brother is Yugoslav ambassador.

Despite the rhetoric, few anticipate either an early departure by Milosevic or an easy one. “It’s not only his political survival that is at stake,” noted one Western ambassador in Belgrade. “Fies actually risking his life and that of his family by stepping down.” The UN International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague has indicted Milosevic as a war criminal. There is, as well, a $ 7.5-million bounty on his head, which Washington has offered for information leading to his arrest and trial in the Dutch capital. Within Yugoslavia, his enemies are legion, the result of ruthless policies that have provoked four

Balkan wars in the space of a decade. The process has witnessed the successive departures from the Yugoslav federation of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia, not to mention Kosovo, for all practical purposes now a virtually independent entity under the protection of NATO troops.

Kostunica and his allies are clearly gambling that they can avert another bloody Balkan clash, relying on the sheer weight of Serbian public opinion to keep the Yugoslav army in its barracks and the much-feared paramilitary police off the streets. If the numbers from the ballot boxes are any sign, the strategy may well prove effective. The Sept. 24 elections were not just for the presidency but also for seats in both of Yugoslavia’s federal houses of parliament as well as scores of local authorities across the country. Milosevic’s forces managed to retain control of both the upper and lower parliamentary assemblies, but only because Montenegro’s westward-leaning, independentist President Milo Djukanovic chose to boycott the elections, labelling them a “farce and a fraud.” But Kostunica’s DOS swept the polls at the local level, winning 105 of the 110 seats on the Belgrade city council and performing similar feats of electoral prowess in almost every major city and town in the country. “The scale of the opposition victory has had a really big influence on many people in the army and police forces,” maintained Momcilo Perisic, chief of staff of the Yugoslav army until Milosevic fired him two years ago.

It also appears to have had a devastating effect on Milosevic’s inner circle. There were rumours circulating in Belgrade late last week that the strongman’s influential wife, Mira Markovic, daughter Marija and son Marko, had fled the country, seeking refuge in Moscow. If that is true, they will

Milosevic was defeated in the Yugoslav election—but he continues to cling to power

World

join Bogoljub Karic, owner of a proMilosevic television station in Belgrade, who London’s Daily Telegraph reported flew to the Russian capital on Sept. 25 with six of his senior staff. Another Milosevic associate, former cabinet minister Milan Beko, resigned as head of the giant Zastava automobile plant in Kragujevac. Even more ominous as far as Milosevic’s prospects are concerned are signs of defections from former political allies, led by former prime minister Momir Bulatovic, chief of the Montenegro branch of Milosevic’s Socialist Peoples’ Party.

Oddly, Milosevic’s best hope for survival may well rest with Kostunica himself. The DOS candidate enjoys a well-deserved reputation for integrity, but he is also a Serb nationalist, albeit of the moderate school. He once supported Milosevic’s program for a greater Serbia and he remains a vocal opponent of U.S., EU and NATO policies in Kosovo. He is also on record as opposing any attempts to ship Milosevic to the Hague tribunal, a body he has dismissed as “not a legal but a political instrument” subservient to Washington. “As for Slobodan Milosevic’s safety during my presidency,” he said after the election, “it is regulated by our constitution. The part in which it states that representatives of our country must take care of citizens’ safety also refers to the safety of the former Yugoslav president.”

Still, there remains widespread fear about the outcome of the Yugoslav elections on Balkan stability. NATO secretary general Lord George Robertson cut short a trip to the Caucasus last week to chair a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s political arm, amid what he described as “worries that there might be a spillover of violence from Serbia.” Last week, the British sent the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible into the Mediterranean and the Americans embarked on troop and naval exercises in Croatia. On the other side of Serbia, NATO forces are already engaged in training exercises in Romania.

Montenegro is the chief concern, the fear that Milosevic might provoke trouble

with Serbia’s reluctant partner to divert attention from his own problems at home. The surprising scale of Kostunica’s electoral win has dampened those fears, at least for the moment. But they remain palpable in Montenegro itself, nowhere more so than up in the old royal capital of Cetinje. The city, nestled in a bowl in the mountains 30 km west of the present capital of Podgorica, offers proof that the rugged highlands did once enjoy an independent existence. There are 19 former embassies in the city, fading but once elegant villas housing diplomatic missions accredited to the Kingdom of Crna Gora. The state, officially recognized by the Congress of Berlin in 1878, passed into history in the wake of the First World War when it was absorbed by Serbia.

Under Milo Djukanovic, the 37-yearold current Montenegrin president, the old dreams of independence have been revived. Ever since his election three years ago, he has been engaged in a cat-andmouse game with Milosevic aimed at slowly but steadily restoring the independence Montenegro lost in 1918. Those recent elections in Yugoslavia may well mark the beginning of the end of Milosevic’s dark era and the advent of a better future for Serbia under Vojislav Kostunica. But it may also merely signal another chapter, perhaps less bloody, in an ongoing process that is redrawing the map of the Balkans. ESI

Widespread fear remains over political stability in the Balkans