Yugoslavia’s Presidential Election: The Serbian Peoples’ Moment of Truth
Yugoslavia’s Presidential Election: The Serbian Peoples’ Moment of Truth
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
How to Relaunch the Kosovo-Serbia Dialogue
Report 102 / Europe & Central Asia

Yugoslavia’s Presidential Election: The Serbian Peoples’ Moment of Truth

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

Executive Summary

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.[fn]See ICG Balkans Report No. 99, Serbia: The Milosevic Regime on the Eve of September Elections, 17 August 2000. That report reflected research largely completed in June, and did not predict the opposition revival. For an earlier and slightly more optimistic assessment of the opposition’s chances, see ICG Balkans Report No. 94, Serbia’s Embattled Opposition, 30 May 2000. 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.[fn]The opposition joined forces behind Kostunica on 6 August 2000 in a coalition called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), which includes 18 opposition parties and the independent trade union. Hide Footnote

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.[fn]The consequences of Draskovic’s refusal to join ranks with the rest of the opposition and to run his own presidential candidate are discussed below in Section I. 

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.[fn]See ICG Balkans Report No. 99, cited above.Hide Footnote   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,[fn]As President of the Serbian Presidency, a collegial position akin to that represented by the Bosnian trilateral model, where there is also no single president.  In 1990, after constitutional revisions, Milosevic was elected President of Serbia.Hide Footnote  a candidate put forward by a largely unified opposition has developed a large popular following and opened a wide lead in opinion polls.[fn]On 10 September Agence-France Presse reported the results of the Strategic Marketing Agency Poll (Belgrade), which was taken during the last week of August, and showed Kostunica beating Milosevic 45.1-38.3 per cent in a four-way, first round race; on 7 September VIP reported that, in a sample taken from 58 municipalities, in a four-way race Kostunica would beat Milosevic 43.2-24.6 per cent, and on 5 September Deutsche  Presse Agentur reported a 43-21 per cent lead for Kostunica over Milosevic in a four-way race, according to a Center for Alternative Studies poll taken in 60 municipalities.  Three National Democratic Institute (NDI) tracking polls taken between 18 August and 5 September showed Kostunica’s support in a four-way race increasing from 39 to 43 per cent, while Milosevic held steady at 25 per cent.  (NDI Serbia Election Tracking Polls, 11 September 2000 [www.ndi.org].)Hide Footnote  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)[fn]Among those detained was GSS head Goran Svilanovic, in what was the regime’s first attack on an opposition party leader (Associated Press, 15 September 2000).  In its principled insistence on human rights and accountability, the GSS, which is part of the DOS coalition, probably has more in common with a Western-style democratic party than any other party in Serbia and has long enjoyed greater credibility in the West than in Belgrade.Hide Footnote ; 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.[fn]A number of voters recently told ICG that while they prefer Kostunica as a candidate, they fear that Milosevic might react to an opposition victory with a violent crackdown, and consequently they are not sure how they will cast their ballots.  (ICG interviews, Belgrade, 7-11 September 2000.)Hide Footnote

However the genuine vote count adds up, very few in Serbia believe that Milosevic, if defeated, will willingly hand over power.[fn]ICG interviews, mid-August until mid-September.  A late August Institute of Social Sciences poll, which, like most others conducted at about that time, gave Kostunica 35-23 per cent over Milosevic, also revealed that 46 per cent of the electorate nevertheless expected Milosevic to remain in office.  (VIP, 1 September 2000, reprinted on freeb92-e@opennet.org.)Hide Footnote   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.[fn]The regime’s electoral rules, also announced on 27 July, provide for a second round should no candidate receive more than 50 per cent of the vote in a first round.  However, the rules also state that, “The president can be elected even if less than 50 per cent of eligible voters cast their vote.”  (Radio FreeB92 News, INTERNET:freeb92-e@opennet.org, 27 July 2000.)  Indeed, few observers or participants expect Milosevic to permit such close electoral results as would necessitate a second round.  (ICG interviews, mid-August to mid-September 2000.)Hide Footnote  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”[fn]Washington Post, 15 September 2000.Hide Footnote , 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.[fn]ICG interviews, Belgrade, 7-11 September 2000.Hide Footnote

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.[fn]The EU Foreign Ministers on 18 September 2000 made such an announcement, although without any proviso attached: “On 24 September the people of Serbia will be faced with a crucial political choice.The elections, whatever the circumstances under which they have been called and organised, will give the Serbian people the opportunity to repudiate clearly and peacefully the policy of Milosevic, which consists of political manipulation, deprivation of liberty and impoverishment of the population. It is that policy which led the FRY to war, isolation and deadlock. These elections will give the Serbian people a chance for democratic change. It is up to them to seize the opportunity by turning out to vote. We reaffirm that a choice leading to democratic change will entail a radical change in the European Union's policy with regard to Serbia: we will lift the sanctions against the FRY; we will support the necessary economic and political reforms by providing Serbia with economic aid for its reconstruction and we will support the reintegration of the FRY into the international Community. We will suggest to the FRY that it draw closer to the European Union so that it can occupy its rightful place in Europe. We have never forgotten that the Serbs are Europeans. A vote for democracy in Serbia will be a vote for Serbia in Europe.”  General Affairs Council (18.9.00), Message to the Serbian People, available on http://ue.eu.int.Hide Footnote

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.[fn]See ICG Balkans Report No.101, Current Legal Status of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and of Serbia and Montenegro, 19 September 2000.Hide Footnote  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.[fn]See ICG Balkans Report No. 89, Montenegro: In the Shadow of the Volcano, 21 March 2000.Hide Footnote

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.

Washington/Brussels, 19 September, 2000

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