Tod Lindberg

In the wake of a dictatorship

Posted by Tod Lindberg on July 3rd, 2001

The Washington Times

To judge by the street demonstrations that greeted the surprise decision of the government of Serbia to extradite former Yugoslavia leader Slobodan Milosevic to an international tribunal at the Hague to face war crimes charges, the politics of post-Milosevic Yugoslavia remain an edgy and unsettled affair.

The lingering support among Serbs for Mr. Milosevic is not merely backward-looking. How the Serbian people view his government’s actions throughout the 1990’s may be the central question for the future of Serbia and the Yugoslav federation. The Western world saw Belgrade embark on campaigns of territorial aggrandizement, ethnic cleansing and worse, whereas the portrait painted by the Milosevic government depicted a Yugoslavia beset by local troublemakers and bullied by Western governments, culminating in NATO’s air war over Kosovo.

In two senses, Serbs cannot afford a lingering attachment to the view of the conflict propounded by Mr. Milosevic. The first is the strictly pecuniary. Western aid for reconstruction and economic development was substantially conditioned on Mr. Milosevic’s extradition. The handover came on the eve of a meeting on aid in Brussels, and the result was quick agreement on a package totaling $1.28 billion, more than Yugoslavia had requested. The United States upped its commitment from $100 million to $181 million. But at the end of the day, the sums at stake serve to obscure the more important issue. A purely mercenary calculation – ransoming Mr. Milosevic for aid money – is possible, but in the long run, woefully insufficient. Serbs must come to understand what their government did during the 1990’s, and more to the point, why they were wrong to the extent they supported Mr. Milosevic. Without this reckoning, the chances of Serbia’s successful integration into the Western world – the very same world that managed to stand united, albeit belatedly, against Mr. Milosevic – look rather slim. And without an orientation toward the West, the prospects for Serbia do not rise much above that of permanent Balkan flashpoint on the periphery of a democratic, developed world that has left Serbia permanently behind. On the strength of the impression he made during a visit earlier this year, I think Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, the key official in the Milosevic handover, understands this broader issue and the stakes involved very well. It is important to take people seriously when they have a track record of achieving difficult goals. In this case, that would be last year’s bloodless removal of Mr. Milosevic from office, an extraordinary political achievement in which Mr. Djindjic was a central figure.

Opposition figures knew (not least from extensive polling conducted with assistance from the United States) that if they were united behind a single candidate, they could defeat Mr. Milosevic in the federal presidential election. Less certain was the question of whether Mr. Milosevic would abide by the result. Thus the key was to bring enough post-election pressure to bear on him while depriving him of the option of resort to the military and police to suppress demonstrations. But who among opposition figures could keep the nationalist-minded police and military in their barracks? Clearly, not someone too closely aligned with the Western forces that had just bombed Belgrade. Hence the selection of the nationalist Vojislav Kostunica to run against Mr. Milosevic.

In a word, the strategy worked. Mr. Milosevic abandoned his initial defiance of the election results and stepped down. Yet Mr. Kostunica was and remains opposed to extradition. He has, in fact, denounced the actions of the Djindjic government in handing Mr. Milosevic over.

I think Mr. Djindjic well understands the “public diplomacy” he needs to undertake with his own people to get them to reassess the Milosevic years in their entirety. Clearly, the timetable cannot be leisurely. Outside pressures, such as a donor conference, weigh heavily. And indeed, Mr. Djindjic’s government has been speaking frankly in recent months about atrocities linked to Mr. Milosevic. Equally clearly, a popular re-evaluation will not take place overnight. Internal resistance remains. Mr. Djindjic has apparently calculated that his government can withstand the protest that the extradition has generated.

So far, that looks right, and if so, it is another remarkable political achievement. During his spring visit, I heard Mr. Djindjic say the profoundest thing I think I have ever heard from the lips of a practicing politician. He was explaining why economic investment in Serbia was so important. “Without money, there is only politics,” he said. “And where there is only politics, there is hate.”

That is as succinct a summary of the central insight of classical bourgeois liberalism, as fashioned in the first place by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, as one could ask for. It is also a superb statement of Serbia’s problem. The man and the moment would appear to be well matched. Especially among the humanitarian-minded community of journalists who have covered the depredations perpetrated from Belgrade in the past 10 years, there is a lingering suspicion of Serbia and Serbs. At times it verges, I think, on stereotype and prejudice. The relationship between the Serbian people and Mr. Milosevic and what he represented is a complicated one. It is also a work in progress. If Mr. Djindjic actually does manage to bring off the integration of Serbia into the West, it will only be by working through this problem, and what an achievement that would be.