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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Balkans > Serbia > Yugoslavia's Presidential Election: The Serbian People's Moment of Truth

Yugoslavia's Presidential Election: The Serbian People's Moment of Truth

Europe Report N°102 19 Sep 2000

Since the International Crisis Group’s (ICG’s) last paper addressing the Serbian political scene, the situation on the ground inside Serbia has changed dramatically. Once Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic announced, on 27 July 2000, the 24 September date for simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and municipal elections in Serbia, the previously fractious opposition rapidly and unexpectedly united behind the nomination of Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer and self-styled democratic nationalist with no ties to the regime or the West.

Kostunica’s candidacy has fired the imagination of a surprising percentage of the Serbian people, whose renewed faith in themselves and their democratic cause has generated electoral momentum as they have come to believe that the upcoming polls could effect seismic change in their country and their future. It has also marginalised the heretofore important Serbian Renewal Party (SPO) and discredited its founder and longtime leader Vuk Draskovic, whose refusal to support the unified opposition’s choice of Kostunica has cost Draskovic and the SPO significant public support..

At the time of ICG’s last writing, opinion polls were showing that 50 per cent of the electorate was undecided as to its choice for the Yugoslav presidency. We reported that the situation was extremely volatile and could change virtually overnight, and this is precisely what has happened. For the first time since Milosevic came to power in 1989, a candidate put forward by a largely unified opposition has developed a large popular following and opened a wide lead in opinion polls. Despite a regime crackdown and an aggressive anti-opposition propaganda campaign, Serbia’s sundry opposition forces have at last been galvanised and are optimistic about winning a majority of votes genuinely cast.

The buoyancy and impressive focus of the new Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition have been accompanied by a loss of discipline within the regime. For the first time, stress fractures within the ruling coalition have been on public display, with one coalition partner, Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRS), running its own presidential candidate; spats between the parties of Milosevic (the Socialist Party of Serbia, or SPS) and his wife, Mirjana Markovic (the Yugoslav United Left, or JUL) over slots on party slates; the much-publicised resignation from the SPS of longtime party stalwart and president of the former Yugoslavia Zoran Lilic; the abduction in broad daylight of Ivan Stambolic, former Serbian president and Milosevic mentor, and the published expressions of remorse on the part of army officers about crimes they now acknowledge having committed in Kosovo.

The visibility of these regime fissures reveals Milosevic’s vulnerability, to cover which he has predictably stepped up his repression of those forces which are most effective in exposing his weaknesses: the independent media; members of the opposition, in particular, the irreverent activist youth movement known as OTPOR, and more recently, the leaders of the small, liberal and non-nationalist Civic Alliance Party (GSS) ; and non-government organisations that attempt to monitor human and civil rights.

Perhaps in response to this increased repression, which has been coupled with an aggressive, anti-opposition propaganda campaign, careful observers have perceived in recent days more anxiety than excitement among some opposition supporters. Opinion polls have shown some tapering off of the mounting enthusiasm for Kostunica as voters apparently worry whether an opposition victory would provoke an even more brutal crackdown by the regime.

However the genuine vote count adds up, very few in Serbia believe that Milosevic, if defeated, will willingly hand over power. While it is difficult to predict the outcome of the polling — and there remains the possibility that Milosevic will pre-empt a humiliating defeat by staging a purported “terrorist attack,” simulated coup, or some other crisis that would justify his cancelling the vote and declaring a state of emergency — the more likely outcome is that Milosevic and the ruling coalition will attempt to “steal” the elections in the first round. Should this scenario play out, it remains unclear whether the opposition forces can mobilise and sustain sufficient popular outrage — and sufficiently neutralise or win the support of the police and military in the process — to drive him from office.

The unified opposition, convinced that its candidates can only benefit from as high a turn-out as possible, has organised an effective get-out-the-vote mobilisation campaign. Opposition leaders have also calculated that the more opposition ballots there are, the harder it will be for the regime to “steal” them, and that a flagrantly fraudulent vote will embolden the population to face down the regime in the streets. But Kostunica himself has vowed not to let demonstrations descend into “civil war” , and the private disposition of opposition leaders is to settle in for a longer haul. Kostunica and his colleagues view these elections, at a minimum, as an opportunity to establish a new political reality in Serbia by seizing legitimacy, if not at this stage power, from the regime.

There remains the delicate question of the appropriate role for the international community, given, on the one hand, the strong reservations that will continue to be felt about Kostunica’s intensely nationalist credentials, and on the other the concern that outright support from key NATO countries is likely to have a counterproductive effect. But following the recent developments described in this report, there should certainly be a willingness now, whatever anxieties may previously have been felt about giving credibility to a sham election process, to applaud the emergence of a united opposition, to fully support its participation in the elections, and to indicate that a change of government will be rewarded – provided the new government meets the kind of performance criteria that have been demanded of other democracies in transition in Europe.

Different considerations apply to the participation of Montenegrins in the election. The unconstitutional actions of the FRY government and effective exclusion of Montenegrin interests from federal institutions makes the Djukanovic government’s decision to boycott the elections not only politically understandable but legally defensible. Because it remains possible that Milosevic will be tempted, in this period of heightened tension and uncertainty, to engage in military adventurism against Montenegro, it remains important not only for the Western powers to continue to give political and economic support to the republic, but also to provide it with a specific security guarantee.

Within Serbia, all the DOS political objectives, from the most to the least ambitious — from the highly unlikely prospect of a peaceful hand-over of power; to the long shot that a Serbian version of “People Power” will eventually prevail; to the opposition’s far more likely success at discrediting the regime and broadening its own base — represent tremendous strides forward for Serbian democratisation. Notwithstanding the issues that would remain to be resolved if a Kostunica-led government came to power, the international community should, in the present circumstances, quietly continue to make clear its support for such a change, and be guided by the opposition leadership as to how it might best be helped to achieve its immediate goals.

It is critical, above all, for the international community to remember that it is the Serbian people themselves who must take responsibility for change in their country. That they have the power to reshape their destiny and to make Serbia a valued member of the European community is not in question. What is unknown, and will emerge shortly, is the extent of their determination, courage, and resolve. They can accommodate themselves to years more under Milosevic, with all that this entails for them and their progeny, or they can usher in a new phase of democratic nationalism that restores their national pride and self-respect and contributes to the stability of southeastern Europe. No amount of declarations or urging by Western leaders and Serbia’s friends abroad can make that decision for them nor remove their own responsibility for facing their moment of truth on 24 September.



1. The international community should applaud the emergence of a unified Serbian democratic opposition and wholeheartedly support its efforts to bring about political change.

2. The international community should support full popular participation by Serbians in the 24 September 2000 elections and call upon the ruling political authorities, army and police to respect the genuine expression of the popular will.

3. The international community should make clear now that, in the event that the democratic opposition candidate wins the presidential election, sanctions will be lifted, diplomatic and trade relations resumed, applications for membership in international institutions may proceed — provided that the government meets those performance criteria required of other democracies in transition in Europe.


4. In the event that it appears — on the balance of available evidence — that a declaration of victory by Milosevic is fraudulent, the international community should be guided in its response by the reaction of the leadership of the democratic opposition.

5. Whatever the declared outcome of the elections may be, Western and particularly European states should increase their assistance for democratisation and civil society initiatives.

6. Neighbouring emerging democracies should be encouraged to share with the Serbian people lessons learned from their own experiences in creating and institutionalising a strong and vibrant media, an independent judiciary, resilient civil society structures, a true free-market economy, and a lasting respect for fundamental human rights.


7. Notwithstanding that it will make the task of the Serbian opposition more difficult, Montenegro’s decision on constitutional and related grounds to boycott the federal elections remains understandable and defensible and should be supported.

8. As Montenegro remains at risk of military adventurism by Milosevic through the election period and beyond, it continues to be important that it receives not just political and economic support but a specific security guarantee from the West.

9. Whatever the outcome of the FRY elections, Western and especially European countries, should continue to demonstrate their support for the democratically elected Montenegrin government by increasing assistance for democratic institution-building, the civil society sector, and economic reform efforts.

Washington/Brussels, 19 September, 2000

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