Only ten days elapsed between the Yugoslav election and the collapse of the Milosevic dictatorship. After a decade of losing wars and a pillaged, wrecked economy, the people of Serbia appear to have overthrown post-communist Europe’s bloodiest ruler. Why did it finally happen? And what does it mean, especially for NATO’s commitment in the Balkans?
A story is told that at the Yalta Conference, Stalin’s foreign minister Molotov summed up his master’s objection to western-style elections with this comment: “The trouble with elections is that you never know how they are going to turn out!” Apparently, all the polls notwithstanding, Milosevic believed that on September 24th, he knew how it would turn out. He expected to win a sufficient number of votes from the mainstays of his regime — the farmers, the state industrial workers, the rabid nationalists — that he could steal the small but necessary margin of victory. Behind this calculation also stood the police “vote” and behind that, as always in Serbia, the army vote. For in Serbia’s modern history, the army has arrogated to itself the guardianship of the nation. When, in the view of the generals, a leader has outlived his usefulness, the army withdraws its hand of legitimacy and either removes the ruler or allows him to be removed.
Fortunately for all concerned, Milosevic had never attained absolute power. He ruled by force, fraud and intimidation but he could not rule by these alone. Milosevic won at least one election fair and square. He divided and coopted his opposition and for a decade actually cultivated the broad middle of a nationalist spectrum, by no means the most extreme. In Milosevic’s Belgrade, there was always some space to the right and to the left. He had cynically abandoned communism when, in 1989, he discovered that nationalism offered the wave of the future. There is no reason to believe he was any less cynical about the new faith.
The truth is that Milosevic survived because he touched a chord in the hearts of his countrymen, playing to their sense of grievance and martyrdom. He also shared their historic tendency to overreach and, then, having failed, to sink into a paralysis of self-pity. Somehow, he stood off all the eminent would-be statesmen, Western and Russian, who tried to outwit him diplomatically; for some time, he even challenged them successfully on the battlefield. Posing now as arsonist, now as fireman, the arsonist eventually got the upper hand. So he overreached in Bosnia, humiliating NATO and pushing Clinton into a corner through massacres and a treachery so thorough that even his one-time ally turned adversary, the Croatian dictator Franjo Tudjman, could become an ally of the West. Then he did something similar in Kosovo, turning the KLA from terrorists into liberators in Washington’s eyes. The Serbs stayed with him until it was clear that he had led them not into a new chapter of glorious martyrdom but the dead-end of a dull, demoralizing isolation. And at that very moment so vulnerable for him, Milosevic gave them a choice. He had lost his touch if not his nerve and the people sensed it, followed by the formerly stalwart miners, then the police, then the army, and in the end, even the lawyers and the journalists.
In Washington, London, and Paris there are now audible sighs of relief at the revolution in Belgrade. Milosevic had threatened to become another Saddam, somehow clinging to power, his back broken but limbs twitching dangerously, while an economic embargo badly damaged not only Yugoslavia but the weak states surrounding it. The Western generals, committed by their political chiefs to employ over 100,000 troops (counting rotations and logistics) in the pacification of the Balkans without any terminus, will hurry to concoct plans for withdrawal. In Brussels, there will be an equal rush to promise money to the new government. Should these plans come to pass, all well and good.
But then there is another possibility, too. Mr. Kostunica, the new leader in Belgrade is also a Serb nationalist. As a democratic leader, he will lay claim to Western sympathy. As a Serb, however, he will also lay claim to the nearly lost province of Kosovo, now run as international protectorate by NATO and the UN although still legally part of the Yugoslav Federation. Will the West deny him a reestablishment of Belgrade’s authority in the name of Kosovar nationalism? And if he should raise the still great grievances of the Bosnian Serbs, will he also be turned away? In short, the end of Milosevic is not the end of Serbian nationalism. The unrequited quarrels that exploded Yugoslavia, then Bosnia and more recently Kosovo, are still there and still potentially murderous. We may be far from being finished with this problem and in some ways, our situation could grow more difficult. The Serbs have no history of flexibility and the sudden onset of democracy in Belgrade may not be the “cure” that Washington hopes will heal the Balkans.
Then there is Moscow and, further afield, Beijing. Both governments invested a great deal in Milosevic’s resistance to American “hegemony” and NATO “aggression.” Both feared the Kosovo precedent for their own situations. Milosevic’s fall is a bad sign for each of the “big brothers,” who are themselves experimenting with a post-communist nationalism that promises political longevity with one hand, and fatal military adventures, with the other hand. The Russians have Chechnya and Central Asia; the Chinese have Tibet and their own Muslims. Beijing also rides the tiger in the Taiwan conflict. There is nothing flexible about this kind of nationalism.
In the end, the west will be wise not to make too much of the Balkans. This region, contrary to the claims of lightly informed politicians and the equally superficial analogists of history, has never been the center of Europe. Folly in the great capitals of the old Europe turned it from the backwater of history into the spark of a great conflagration in 1914. More recent folly in Washington and these same capitals allowed Mr. Milosevic a wrecker’s career that could have been halted with little effort and much less bloodshed in its early stages, risking neither NATO’s prestige nor Washington’s reputation. But now it is over. Milosevic is gone. The Balkans can return to their deserved slumber. Let us pick up our pieces as best we can and move on to more important projects and more optimistic horizons.