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Transforming Serbia: the Key to Long Term Stability

Europe Report N°75 12 Jul 1999

The NATO intervention in Serbia and the indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have created openings within Serbian society and exposed cleavages within the regime that should be rapidly exploited to hasten Milosevic’s departure and bring about genuine political change. The loss of Kosovo, the destruction resulting from the bombing, and the refusal of the international community to rebuild Serbia until Milosevic is out of power have occasioned widespread despair among Serbs who have come to view their country’s future under its present leadership as a dead end.

In light of these altered circumstances, ICG has prepared the present assessment of the status of various forces within Serbian society. It suggests means by which the international community might consolidate its recent military success by fostering substantive political, economic, and social reform within Serbian society.

This paper furnishes an overview of the economic and political situation in Serbia and examines in detail the effect of recent events on the linchpins of Milosevic’s power - his political network and its tentacle-like infrastructure, his circle of cronies, the military and police. The paper also looks closely at the ambiguous roles of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the ultra-nationalist right and at the state of the opposition and the movement to remove him from office. An appendix offers essential background and analysis of key opposition figures and groups.

There are many possible points of intervention where the international community, with help from Serbia’s neighbours, can have an important impact if it acts now. The first priority is to increase the regime’s isolation. To this end, the report recommends enforcing and expanding the EU travel ban and the seizure of all assets belonging to Milosevic, his top officials and intimates; co-operating more vigorously with the International Criminal Tribunal to secure more indictments and more arrests of those already indicted; maintaining the commitment to withhold all reconstruction assistance until Milosevic is out of power; and, once he is gone, gradually lifting international sanctions as Serbia’s new government satisfies a set of predetermined conditions, such as governing according to the rule of law, respecting fundamental human rights and freedoms, co-operating with the Tribunal, and making steady, verifiable progress toward genuine economic and political reform.

ICG also puts forward a series of measures designed to mobilise and sustain opposition to the regime – such as supporting local independent media and saturating Serbia with independent and foreign Serbian-language broadcasting; carefully monitoring those broadcasts for “stealth” infusions of ultra-nationalist propaganda; reaching far beyond Belgrade to tap the widest possible range of disaffected constituencies; supporting and show-casing the democratic model in neighbouring Montenegro; encouraging the Church to play a more active role in fostering a climate in which political change can take place; and, most immediately, supplying opposition forces with enough material and technical assistance to keep their movement alive.

After four wars supported and fought by countless ordinary Serbs, it should be clear that the removal of Slobodan Milosevic, who has been repeatedly elected by the Serbian people, will in no way solve all of Serbia’s problems. Nevertheless, it is a critical first step. Once Milosevic has gone, it may be possible for the people of Serbia to reflect upon their recent past and become involved in bringing about a more promising future.

That Serbia has no shining, untainted, democratic leader and the opposition forces there are flawed, fractious, and disorganised is a distressing testament to Milosevic’s success, through most of a decade, at strangling and isolating independent voices and thought. For much of that time, a passive international community assisted him, first, by refusing for years to intervene in his wars against Croatia and Bosnia, then, after finally winning a fragile peace for Bosnia, by refusing to respond to domestic oppression in Serbia and Kosovo, for fear of losing Milosevic as the security partner who had guaranteed that peace.

Now the international community, through its intervention on behalf of the people of Kosovo, has created an opportunity in Serbia that it cannot afford to pass up. Although a Western-style democracy is not likely to take root in Serbia in the near future, every successful eastern European democratic transition has required time and sustained effort to nurture a strong, principled, broad-based, democratic opposition capable of assuming power. The necessary investment, compared to the bill for the air campaign, is infinitesimal; the reward, of someday having a more democratic and tolerant Serbia at the heart of southeastern Europe, would be immeasurable.
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